On a dark and stormy night in 1758, American capitalism, a bastard child sired by a thief from Virginia on a Nantucket whore, was left on the doorstep of a shabby brothel in southern Massachusetts. Or, at least, so claims Bruce Norris’s new play, The Low Road (currently at the Public Theater), a puckish parable that depicts our national passion for unbridled acquisitiveness in the roistering spirit of an 18th-century picaresque novel. You might describe the result as “Adam Smith meets Tom Jones.” Though The Low Road sprawls in every direction, as picaresque narratives will, and raises far more questions than its two and a half hours can conveniently clarify, its snarky, cynical attitude offers both good entertainment value and great usefulness as a thought-provoker.
The mention of Adam Smith above is literal. I don’t know if the Scottish founding father of economic self-interest ever did, in fact, find himself in a southern-Massachusetts tavern-cum-whorehouse, but the Adam Smith who narrates Norris’s tale (Daniel Davis) certainly does. He carries with him the manuscript-in-progress of his seminal work, The Wealth of Nations, an ink-stained paragraph of which, read by the play’s youthful hero, magically transforms the foundling, Jim Trewitt (Chris Perfetti), from a drudging whorehouse pot-boy into a walking, doctrine-spouting embodiment of the profit motive.
A misunderstanding of the note left with the infant Trewitt causes him to grow up believing his absent father is “a man of substance.” Though the facts refute this, Trewitt clings to the belief anyway, so when circumstances force him to leave his sordid foster home, he sets off to find his supposed progenitor and share that substance. He equips himself — thanks to money he has chiseled out of his brothel-keeping foster mother’s earnings — with fine clothes and a sturdy slave, John Blanke (Chukwudi Iwuji), who promptly turns out to have grandiose pretensions of his own. As their conflict roils on, it gets interrupted and/or intensified by encounters with a wide variety of strangers: highwaymen; Hessian mercenaries; a Quaker-like commune of souls whose insistence on sharing is the antithesis of Trewitt’s quest for profit; and, finally, by a wealthy New York liberal couple, Isaac and Margarita Low (Kevin Chamberlin and Harriet Harris), who take up Trewitt as a financial assistant and Blanke as a promising artist through whose work they hope to achieve antislavery reform, never realizing that both men’s intentions will ultimately undercut the Lows’ own comfortable position.
The end doesn’t work out happily for anybody, though Norris has to invent a fair number of dei ex machina to make sure it won’t. He seems to have been anxious simultaneously to satirize the capitalist impulse and to salute its indomitability. Like its hero, The Low Road itself is so fixated on the money motive that it often displays an odd amnesia about other aspects of life, which exist chiefly as misguided ideals to be ridiculed and kicked down. The American Revolution, which burgeons while all this is going on, scarcely rates a mention. Trewitt fathers what we’re told will prove to be a bountiful posterity without ever displaying a twinge of either love or sexual interest. (The circumstances in which his infant offspring survives make for the story’s least probable turn.) In the relentlessness of his single-minded concern with acquiring and hoarding wealth, this commercialist Candide comes off as so priggish that his guidebook often seems to be not The Wealth of Nations but The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber’s devastating 1905 dissection of the evolving links between the history of profiteering and Calvinist ideas of salvation.
Capitalism, of course, is always more likely to destroy than to nourish, especially when treated, the way Trewitt treats it, as a zero-sum game in which the goal is to be the only winner. The affectless innocence with which he keeps explaining this rule to those who discover that he’s rooked them — invested by Perfetti with an adorably wide-eyed incomprehension — is The Low Road’s principal source of comedy, elegantly balanced on the tragic side by Iwuji’s ferocious embodiment of Blanke’s visionary idealism.
Not everything in Michael Greif’s production has the tonal assurance of its two mainstays, but the sprawling script poses extreme challenges for a large ensemble in which nearly everyone juggles multiple roles. The early whorehouse scenes are played heavily, as if the word “whore” were always italicized, underlined, and followed by three exclamation points. Even reliable artists like Harriet Harris and Crystal A. Dickinson go over the top in this segment, though each regains her balance in subsequent roles. Chamberlin does well throughout, while Davis makes a suitably imperturbable narrator. And Norris’s inventions can be funny even when he digresses nakedly from his story, hauling in every kind of event and allusion from space aliens to Native American–run gambling casinos. One of his slyest pranks occurs in the least relevant scene of all, a purely arbitrary flash-forward to a 21st-century economic panel discussion. Every time the giant tech magnate on the panel starts to talk about rolling back regulations, his microphone starts giving feedback.