If cynicism were a resource, Bruce Norris would be its greatest exporter. As a writer, the man has remarkably little hope in the rare human phenomena known as kindness and empathy, let alone foresight. Norris won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2011 for his A Raisin in the Sun spinoff, Clybourne Park, and as far as one can tell, he seems to have only become more embittered with humanity
The Low Road, currently running at the Public Theater, originally opened in 2013 at the Royal Court Theatre in London, and it is clear to see why it has taken five years for this well-intentioned, if imbalanced, epic to make the swim across the Atlantic. Clocking at a heavy two hours and 45 minutes, this is an artillery tank of a drama but one that burns through its fuel far too quickly.
Produced by the Public Theater, The Low Road was staged in the Anspacher Theater, which serves as an extremely comfortable vehicle for it. The show is directed by Michael Greif, of RENT and Next to Normal. While Greif is a director whose use of movement might strike some as unnecessary, the stunning fluidity of the staging here is a testament to Greif’s early days as a director of plays, before he turned his eye to musical theatre. Indeed, no member of the 16-person ensemble feels wasted or misplaced, no matter how eccentric or brutal the scenario Norris has chosen to place his characters in.
Norris is not someone who is kind to his characters in the slightest. If anything, he might be a little too good at throwing them in the meat grinder, as one or two of such casual knives in the back come off not quite as intended.
In one particularly misfired moment, one character accuses another of molestation, but it originally comes off as a ploy for the latter’s release. It most certainly was not a ploy to get Jim Trewitt — played by Chris Perfetti — out of bondage.
Jim, as we learn, is the very first laissez-faire capitalist after a chance discovery of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Jim is the hero of Norris’s “anti-Candide,” as artistic director Oskar Eustis describes the work, but calling him a hero is the equivalent of referring to Hannibal Lecter as a vegetarian who charitably donates to anti-cannibalism initiatives.
Jim is easy to hate and he should be, even though what he preaches is taken as gospel by many today, albeit in a much kinder-sounding package.
In one scene, his descendant comes off as a modern-day Ronald Reagan, espousing the virtue of the free market and the ingenuity of the individual, all the while making life difficult for massive hordes of innocent people.
Jim’s life is changed, however, by an encounter with John Blanke — wonderfully played by the talented Chukwudi Iwuji — an educated slave fallen from grace by treachery and misfortune. John is clearly the intellectual superior, if economically deprived, of the duo, and their dynamic is as funny as it is biting.
If there is any expectation that Jim’s journey with John will change the former for the better, that would be a colossal mistake. Jim is too human to change, disgustingly so. John, unfortunately, is also human in his kindness and optimism, one that earns him a harsh laugh from a group of Hessian mercenaries in the second act of the play. When John tells his story, from imprisonment to falling in love and finally the injustices done to him, it would be remiss to hope that he ever earns his due.
Describing this play as an “epic” is definitely no understatement. The story crosses time and space, framed as a university lecture by Smith himself, who tells the audience the story of Jim and his adventures. It seems only appropriate that the world’s first laissez-faire capitalist undergoes trials and tribulations that are resolved by his own selfishness or by the misuse of others’ kindnesses.
He quickly goes from the bookkeeper for his adoptive family’s brothel, scamming the prostitutes out of their wages, to slave owner, to British prisoner, to the architect of his own destruction. At the very least, Norris provides some level of comeuppance when the law finally tries to catch up with him, but the results are as one might expect of a writer who has taken everyone on a journey of such angry, frustrated proportions.
That just might be the issue, however. There are some segments of the work that feel oddly-patched together, including the final fate of John and the framing device of Smith delivering this story as a university lecture.
The story most definitely benefits from a sumptuous design, with lovely atmospheric lighting from Ben Stanton and clever set and costumes from David Korins and Emily Rebholz, respectively. The text, however, is in need of a fine-tuning that could turn this attempt at a work of epic theatre into something much closer to the attempted vision. It is not that The Low Road is a bad play, it just needs to avoid its own low roads.