The Low Road now at The Public Theater has one of the best First Acts I have ever seen. It is filled with twists, turns, sleight of hand, surprises and deceptions. It grabs you by the hand and swoops you into its areas before you have a chance to think. In addition, it comes equipped with a dandy cliffhanger. The First Act, however, is followed by the Second Act. This particular Second Act will serve as a reason for the existence of the old saw, "That's a hard act to follow."
Bruce Norris (the author of Clybourne Park) has taken on another iconic topic and created a tale of the birth of America’s first generation of capitalists. In a nifty take of dramatic license, he chooses Adam Smith (a splendid Daniel Davis), the 19th century Scottish Economist and author, as our narrator. Not that Smith has anything to do with the story itself, but he does with its focus: capitalism. Jim Trewitt (Chris Perfetti) is a foundling left on the doorstep of Mrs. Trewitt (Harriet Harris), a resident of the Massachusetts Colony somewhere around 1758. Mrs. T has no children of her own, although she does employ many a young prostitute. She takes Jim in, ignoring the prophesying of Old Tizzy (Crystal A. Dickinson) who pronounces this child N-o G-o-o-d. Fast forward 18 years and Jim is not only running the whorehouse, he has taken control of the cash flow. The workers get nothing other than a roof over their heads and enough to keep them alive. Jim "invests" the rest in promising enterprises. When the proverbial ships comes in, there will be plenty to go around - but not right now. Hmnnnn.... sound familiar?
Jim's nefarious ways paint him into a corner and force him to skip town. Not empty-handed. Once on the road he buys what he needs, including a slave, John Blake (Chukwudi Iwuji) who is a whole lot more than Jim bargained for. Travels lead the two into Connecticut, and the plot's path takes some major swoops and jumps. All the while Jim is preaching the value of trickle down economics with such abandon and condescension that pretty much every one rejects him and every plan goes ass over teakettle. The surprises come without pause, and nothing is what or where you expect it to be until Smith calls a halt to the tale and encourages us all to make the most of the interval.
As I said the Second Act does not fare so well. The first scene is a shocker that I will not reveal. Suffice it to say that it lays out Norris's premise in spades. As we continue with Jim's tale, we watch him refuse to bend in his capitalistic patriotism, even as the fates betray and beguile him. It is a credit to Norris's spare writing that history is not shoved down our throats. The revelations of the times in which these characters live are plot and character driven. Oh, we learn, but we learn because of the characters.
The specific story line, however, leaves the barn and begins to wander about. The focus we saw in the first act is lacking here, and in some ways the play becomes more like life itself. One thing happens after another. The characters are engaging and every actor in this well-oiled ensemble is terrific (18 actors play 44 characters). Special mention must be made of Harriet Harris who is superb as each of her many characters and Crystal Dickinson who is a chameleon of the highest order. Still, they cannot right the trajectory. The direction is spare and inventive in the small space allotted to it (although Mr. Davis's narration has been directed to the center section of the audience - hence the people in the side seats are often left to view his profile and backside).
Technically, everything is in the right place at the right time. Everything except that pesky storyline that refuses to stay the course. As a result, the second act drags on too long, with a penultimate scene that is so detached from the story line it appears to have wandered in from another theatre altogether, and the evening peters out to a flat and confusing conclusion. Too bad.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
What the popular press says...
"Can a 21st-century writer of topical take-no-prisoners satires find happiness in the quaint but rollicking form of the 18th-century picaresque? For at least the first half of Bruce Norris’s The Low Road, which opened at the Public Theater on Wednesday night, the answer is an exuberant yes. This latest offering from the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park sustains the bustle, buoyancy and unblinking bawdiness of novels like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones so successfully, for so long that you wonder if Mr. Norris and his director, Michael Greif, can keep it afloat. Wonder ceases about 90 minutes into this lengthy tale of a crafty, self-made American capitalist in late Colonial times, first staged in 2013 at London's Royal Court Theatre. That’s when Mr. Norris trades the writerly equivalents of a musket and saber for heavier ammunition (think hand grenades) and threatens to bomb his hitherto artfully spun story, as well its contemptible characters, to smithereens."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Director Michael Greif excels at guiding complex stories and large casts. Even with his fine work, the story eventually sags. One wishes something would move it along — an invisible hand or judicious pruning, perhaps."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Michael Greif does an excellent job of staging such a complex production with no fewer than 17 actors in 50 roles. But the lavish show feels hopelessly cramped on the small stage, despite David Korins' skillfully versatile sets."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
External links to full reviews from popular press...