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Theatre in Review: The Low Road (The Public Theater)

Chukwudi Iwuji, Chris Perfetti. Photo: Joan Marcus

In a scene that represents playwright Bruce Norris at his malicious best, the second act of The Low Road begins at one of those glitzy global confabs that turn up on CNN from time to time. (Think of the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland.) The panel's moderator is played by Harriet Harris, who can turn the most anodyne line of dialogue ("I'm Belinda Tate...of the Tate Foundation") into a riotous display of preening self-satisfaction. Norris' ear for the kind of nonsense spoken at such events is faultless. "Look, when a boatload of refugees goes down in the Mediterranean, obviously your heart goes out," says an American banker, heartlessly, adding that he told a delegation of inner-city students, "If you really want to make the world a better place, first thing you gotta do is help yourself." An African woman, head of some vaguely named organization with a cute acronym, smoothly dismisses suggestions of inequality on her home continent, murmuring, "Well, some of these accusations come from journalists and social media who seek to incite opposition among an uneducated labor force," and repels a question about slave wages by asking, in all innocence, "Is that a matter that individual workers must decide for themselves?" Refugees, economic oppression, the consequences of Brexit: Nothing can shake their confidence in the invisible hand of capitalism, which will make all things right.

The scene -- which ends in chaos, thanks to an invasion by Occupy-style demonstrators -- is played with relish by the gifted cast and directed with lethal precision by Michael Greif, who makes the most of a running gag about a misbehaving microphone. It's a valuable reminder that Norris, at his best, is the most savage of satirists, cutting through clich├ęs and cant with the sharpest of razors.

However, these characters are seen only briefly in The Low Road, which seeks to establish that America was infected at its birth with the virus of free-market capitalism. It's a point worth making, but in making it, Norris has turned uncharacteristically dull-witted, having seemingly lost his zest for the graspers and double-dealers who populate his economic fable. This is a surprisingly long and unprofitable slog through a series of unenlightening situations with a cast of characters who, all too often, fail to engage. Having temporarily misplaced his notorious wit, the author becomes a nag -- and a bit of a bore.

Taking a leaf from Henry Fielding and Voltaire, Norris has spun a picaresque tale that tracks the checkered career of Jim Trewitt, a foundling dropped off on the doorstep of a Massachusetts tavern and brothel in 1758. Adopted by the establishment's feckless madam -- she can never quite get her clientele of British soldiers to pay up -- who believes the infant to be the progeny of a wealthy Virginia planter named G. Washington, Jim becomes entranced by the writings of one Adam Smith. (How Norris contrives to bring his protagonist into personal contact with a handwritten draft by Smith is one of the play's more amusing inventions.) Before long, he is running the tavern and making it pay handsomely. The young ladies on staff, however, are still cash-poor, thanks to Jim's insistence on investing their wages in bonds, none of which are going to come due any time soon.

Heading out into the world, Jim falls into a series of adventures that, by the end of the first act, land him at gunpoint, a hostage of the British Army. (It is now 1776, and any claim to being related to General Washington is sure to bring trouble.) These scenes, I'm sorry to say, are among the flattest ever authored by Norris, dragged down as they are by Jim's insistent reiterations of the basics of capitalism, which are occasionally rebutted by supporting characters offering an equally elementary version of socialism. There is little of Norris, the provocateur; instead, he struggles for shock laughs with four-letter words. In one especially threadbare moment, Jim, in rebuttal to a Christian who notes that Jesus rid the temple of money-changers, announces, "Jesus was an asshole!"

In Act II, Jim gets himself attached to a wealthy New Yorker, taking over his employer's finances and spreading chaos when his Ponzi-style series of borrowings and investments come crashing down. By this point, one intractable problem has been established: As written, Jim is entirely without charisma. He is a self-important bore with a penchant for lectures about the wonders of the market. In the theatre, the wicked must glitter, at least a little, or we will have no reason to be interested in them. Chris Perfetti, a solid actor in many previous roles, is hamstrung here, finding no way to make Jim into even a moderately engaging character. Adding to the trouble, John Blanke, the slave Jim buys only to find their fortunes repeatedly entangled, is so much more charismatic -- and Chukwudi Iwuji, who plays him, is such a dazzling presence -- that the play is thrown fatally out of balance. When John turns a posh dinner party awash in trivial conversation into a passionate debate about the uses of wealth, we are suddenly treated to an exciting clash of ideas; too bad it happens so late and ends so quickly. (Iwuji, who clearly has classical training to go along with a superb voice, probing intelligence, and towering presence, should be getting better roles; here's hoping the Public will find something commensurate with his talents, perhaps in the summer Shakespeare season.)

Greif has lined up an impressive cast to illustrate this tale of this capitalist Candide, although not everyone is seen to his or her best advantage. Daniel Davis, as Adam Smith, our narrator, provides one incisively witty line reading after another; he is a constant pleasure, and we miss him when he is forced to stand on the sidelines. Harris is given little of interest to do in the first act, shuffling around as Jim's adoptive mother, but she shines in Act II as an airheaded society hostess who likes provocative conversation at her dinner table -- but not too much. Max Baker is appealing as the leader of a religious community who has the bad luck to take in Jim; Kevin Chamberlin is amusingly vacant as Jim's hapless sponsor, who ends up losing most of his wealth; Crystal A. Dickinson scintillates as a slave who enters society as the lover of a French scoundrel; Susannah Perkins is wasted as a virtuous young lady wronged by Jim; and Richard Poe is solid in the not-very-demanding role of a clueless British officer.

David Korins, who, a couple of years ago, designed another show you may have heard of set during the Revolutionary War, provides a simple, flexible set, dominated by a wagon that repeatedly emerges through doors located upstage; it's a strategy that, blessedly, keeps the action moving. Ben Stanton's lighting creates a subtly distinct look for every way station on Jim's progress. Emily Rebholz's costumes are splendid period creations, especially the finery in the later scenes. (The wig, hair, and makeup designs of J. Jared Janas and Dave Bova are similarly accomplished.) Matt Tierney's sound design includes such well-rendered effects as a crying baby and gunshots; he contributes some amusing bits of mic feedback in the Act II opener, a superbly executed series of gags that reduces a panelist, played by Chamberlain, to a state of apoplexy.

By the time the action reaches its nihilistic conclusion, however, one's interest in Jim's fate has long since dissipated. This is satire without a glint in its eye, a rake's progress without any Hogarthian flourishes. If rapaciousness were really this dull, who would ever be seduced by it? -- David Barbour

(8 March 2018)

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