Bruce Norris is like a skilled painter who can’t stand paint. Or a sculptor who’s morally repulsed by clay. He’s a playwright, so his medium is people, and for Norris, people rank somewhere below weasels on the Great Chain of Being. His characters are at best well-meaning fools and at worst downright villains. His outlook is cynical, his tone acrid, his vision of humanity’s future nasty, brutish, and short.
So of course he writes comedies. The Low Road, his rancid, rollicking picaresque now at the Public under the sharp-as-a-hatpin direction of Michael Greif, is a riff on Henry Fielding and Voltaire — artistic director Oskar Eustis’s program note refers to it as “the anti-Candide.” Its parody of the classic young-man-sets-out-to-make-his-fortune story is smart, well-crafted, very well-acted, darkly funny (though less riotous than painfully smirky), and beautifully designed (Emily Rebholz’s Colonial costumes are especially striking). It’s also so filled with bitterness and loathing — for the world, for itself — that I started to wonder what it is that keeps Norris writing plays. “For if it is political change we would effect,” fumes one of The Low Road’s more idealistic characters as he struggles to stage an amateur theatrical production of his life story, “Is not a play the most inefficient possible means of achieving it?” It’s a big laugh line, and it’s not necessarily wrong. But, like The Low Road overall, it leaves you cold when the laughter dies down. If we’re all screwed — and self-indulgent and self-serving to boot — then why in fact are we still telling these stories?
The story here concerns Jim Trewitt, a foundling left in a basket on the steps of a whorehouse in 1758. From these humble origins, our young hero will eventually grow up to embody the brazen “I got mine” spirit of free-market capitalism. How does Jim go from bastard to businessman, from Connecticut brothel to Manhattan mansion, from embezzling shillings and pence from starving prostitutes to trading in everything from bonds to debt to human beings? Fortunately, we have a narrator to guide us through “his education, his progress, and his eventual undoing” in the person of Adam Smith. Yes, the Adam Smith who wrote The Wealth of Nations.
Amusingly played with unruffled aplomb and a wry Scottish burr by Daniel Davis, Smith is a genial, omniscient narrator in the style of Fielding or Dickens. He delivers the thoughts and fates of the story’s players with as much easy certainty as he predicts the eventual appearance of Pizza Huts and Lady Foot Lockers on the locations that the characters now traverse in buckled shoes and breeches. He’s Adam Smith because Norris needs a device by which his young protagonist can learn to articulate his budding philosophy — which falls somewhere between those of Ayn Rand and Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. Though devious little Jim (the elfin Jack Hatcher) is already innately aware that “whosoever has two apples is universally happier than he that has one,” it takes a chance encounter with the scribblings of the Scottish economist to set him firmly upon his life’s path.
When Smith, traveling as a tutor to a foppish young duke, happens to spend a night in the tavern run by Jim’s adoptive mother, the widow Dorothy Trewitt (a delightfully daffy performance by Harriet Harris), the boy catches sight of the manuscript that will eventually become the philosopher’s magnum opus. As he reads of the “invisible hand” that somehow pushes society toward “the public interest” even as every individual relentlessly pursues only his own gain — it’s Reaganomics in a tricorne hat — we can sense his mouth watering (the Widow Trewitt has already crooned “Greedy, greedy wee fella!” at baby Jim as she feeds him). “And how convincingly those words resonate within the ears of a child,” editorializes Smith, becoming an unwitting if unapologetic Pangloss to Jim Trewitt’s covetous Candide. Here’s the philosophy our hero has been looking for — a moral justification for rampant selfishness, a silver-tongued treatise that boils down to: Get rich, and tell the rest of the world to “stick it up their fucking arsehole.”
Chris Perfetti does a top-notch job as Jim in exactly the same way Jesse Eisenberg did as the Father of Facebook, which is to say he’s thoroughly, shamelessly detestable. He reeks of entitlement and dumb luck even as he preaches self-sufficiency and bootstrap theory. In one of the play’s zingier exchanges, Jim whines, “What advantages have I? I come from nothing,” to a Quaker-like congregation that has taken him in out of generosity. “You’re not a Negro,” dryly responds John Blanke, the man Jim has recently purchased as a slave. “You’re not a woman,” adds Constance Pugh, the daughter of the assembly’s patriarch. “You’re not blind,” chimes in the patriarch himself, who is. Jim’s only rebuttal is a shrill, “Nay, fie on’t.” (Basically, 18th-century-ese for “Fuck off.”)
The Low Road is most impressive as an ensemble piece, with all 18 cast members doing fine, focused, often funny work — and Chukwudi Iwuji as John Blanke and Susannah Perkins as Constance are major standouts. Taken together, the pair are probably as close as the story comes to a moral center: Norris has described himself as “a big economic lefty,” and John and Constance are the vehement mouthpieces for the socialist argument against Jim’s compassionless capitalist worldview. The play is a series of arguments: increasingly vicious ideological debates that, except for the corsets and powdered wigs, resemble many a disastrous family gathering in the present day. They even tend to take place around dinner tables, as when Jim attacks the altruistic congregation, or later in the play, when John — whose freedom has been bought by a wealthy clan of self-regarding Manhattan “liberals” — finds himself pitching battle against their notions of progress. “Now look,” huffs the head of the family, the rotund, silk-bedecked Isaac Low (played with pitch-perfect affable complacency by Kevin Chamberlin), “We’d all agree this slavery business is a damnable shame and must be eliminated — gradually, of course, over a reasonable time.” John is livid. “How much time?” he fires back.
John and Constance are also complex human beings in their own right, beyond their philosophies, much more so than Jim if truth be told. Iwuji brings out the layers in John — the iron-willed survivor but also the touchy creative type and the idealist whose belief that “surely we can learn” will, in Norris’s universe, only be rewarded with grief. Perkins (who was stellar in last year’s remount of The Wolves at Lincoln Center) has a ferocity that lights up every inch of her slight frame. Constance’s secret is that she moonlights as a highwayman. To her, and to Norris, “All profit is theft,” and she’d rather do her thieving without disguising it as something else. Despite being less developed than Iwuji’s character, Constance finds fiery, steely life in Perkins’s performance. The play leaves her behind for a while, and I missed her when it did.
What she and John and indeed all inhabitants of the Norris-verse have in common is their impassioned, biting eloquence: These people can talk. The Low Road is full of articulate fury, and articulate villainy too. That’s not surprising, inspired as it was by Paul Ryan’s rise in the 2012 presidential race. Norris told The New Yorker that, watching Ryan, he felt sickened: “That man with those cold, soulless blue eyes was articulating this horrifying vision — and there were people who were persuaded by it.” The play takes a brief jump into the present day at the top of its second act, as we witness an economic summit that quickly shows us what we already know: The calamitous present-day stretch of the same road trod blithely by Adam Smith and Jim Trewitt. It’s a bleak illustration of a central Norris-ian conviction, that “progress is an illusion.” And like the play as a whole, it’s both entertaining and disturbingly numbing in its hopelessness. Norris has made his case plain: The human experiment is a failure. The end is near (just wait for the weird, sci-fi twist at The Low Road’s conclusion). We’ve fucked it all up irretrievably. And on top of all that, theater is “an act of futility,” a shameful indulgence: “Airy notions [mouthed] to an audience of privilege, only to gratify their vanity.” Everything about it is, in Norris’s own words, “just world-destroying.”
Well, I don’t buy it. Shame is deeply fashionable these days, as is making plays in which we all sigh across the footlights at each other about what a privileged, ineffectual pursuit making plays is. Newsflash: Anyone who truly believes that is free to stop making them or watching them at any time. Norris, for all his black despair, has not. He needs to move past his caustic judgment of his art form and grapple with what it is that keeps him returning to it.
The Low Road is at the Public Theater.