The Low Road
An epic gaze into the love of wealth, Bruce Norris’s new play The Low Road at The Public Theater is dramatically quite fabulous. In it, the prophet of free market economy, Adam Smith (Daniel Davies), plays a central role, narrating the action from a seemingly omniscient point of view.
Waving an “invisible hand” over the corrupt machinations of 18th Century businessmen, he is a cunning curator in a world of fraudulent dealings.
Set in the time of the American Revolution, early American settlers trade freely in human lives. Native American populations are denied their land, African men and women are kidnapped and forced into slavery, women are raped, and justice is defined by economic might. These are only a few of the issues at the cornerstone of Norris’s episodic tale.
With regard to narrative, the story twists and dives into so many fractured subplots that it defies literal translation. To make matters more complex, the production sports 18 actors playing 48 roles.
Like John Guare’s A Free Man of Color, Low Road abounds in historical and literary allusions, theatrical trickery, and flagrant showmanship. And both are winding narratives as opaque as they are politically hard hitting.
At the center of Low Road is a poor orphaned boy, Jim Trewitt. A whorehouse madam (Harriet Harris) found him when he was a baby with a note by his side indicating that his father was G. Washington of Virginia. Clues, inferences, and associations pile up, with some openly camp humor driving the action.
Moving out into the world, Trewitt, played by Chris Perfetti, acquires a slave, John Blanke (Chuk Iwuji), who, it turns out, is the well-heeled, one-time heir to a British aristocrat. But when the two find themselves in a religious commune, the Dickensian world begins to explode. So, Trewitt and his newly purchased “pre-owned” slave move on to more productive adventures, only to find themselves at the merciless hands of Hessians, German troops who are fighting on the British side.
If anything is obvious here, it’s motive — the motive to acquire wealth. In Act II, the play turns to a modern-day symposium, in which a panel of successful businessmen discuss the virtues of a market that is making them so wealthy at the expense of most of mankind.
After this, we return to tie up some of the main plot points, when, out of the blue, the narrative unfolds into a nightmarish exposé. Enormous bug puppets with headlights arrive to take over a failing planet. It’s a fitting outcome for the irresponsible and self-serving lives of the very rich.
Directed with great abandon by Michael Grief, this irreverent, fast paced satire is a sprawling mess of a play. With stand-out performances by Iwuji as Blanke and Kevin Chamberlin in a variety of seemingly contradictory roles, including the Greasy-Haired Man and the sanctimonious bigot, Isaac Low. Harris is delightful as the wise and voracious madam, as well as the harried moderator of the panel on world economies. And Perfetti as Trewitt brightens the stage with energy and courage.
That Admissions, Joshua Harmon’s new play at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E Newhouse Theater, feels like it’s stuck in banalities, is much to the playwright’s point. Here, at Hillcrest, in the elite halls of the country’s leading prep school, the tyranny of political correctness is more contagious than an outbreak of the flu.
The issue at hand is diversity in education. And its greatest advocate is Hillcrest’s admissions director Sherri Rosen-Mason — an emotive, albeit understated Jessica Hecht. Even her hyphenated name bespeaks her obsession about the blending of peoples. In this case, it’s the Jewish Rosen and the Christian Mason.
Sherri’s husband, Bill (Andrew Garman), is a self-confident, self-effacing liberal, and the dean of the school where she works. In other words, he’s a nice guy.
As the play opens, Sherri is facing off with her associate, Roberta (Ann McDonough), about her failure to produce an admissions catalogue that expresses the school’s mission to diversify the student body. Completing this project takes up the entire course of the play … and only then, because Sherri becomes disillusioned by her rigid political correctness.
But the conflict that raises the stakes in this simple, direct story occurs when their son Charlie (an excellent Ben Edelman) isn’t accepted for early admission to Yale, while his best friend, the bi-racial son of his mother’s best friend, Ginnie, is. Harnessing his jealousy and righteous anger, Charlie finally fights back, in an act of rebellion that makes him a most appealing misfit.
In this role, Edelman brings terrific commitment and spark. His tirade at rejection, his perception of unfairness, and his “Republican” attitude toward affirmative action square off in the play’s central scene. Charlie, a white male, spews his contempt at a system that is skewed to renounce him.
While Charlie’s outburst comes across as narcissistic, it also seems like the perfect opportunity for his parents to demonstrate their righteous ideals. “So, you’ll go to Dartmouth. You’ll go to Duke,” Bill retorts, as he shames his son for his display of racism.
For Charlie, however, the conflict is transformative. And while his parents strive to keep him on track with their ideals and expectations, he takes his own rousing stand for social conscience. In fact, he doesn’t need to win his fight. He delivers a deadly blow to his parents’ idea of what is right, and their hypocrisy is exposed and vilified.
In keeping with the style of the play, Daniel Aukin’s direction is flawlessly realistic, with attention paid to the economy and simplicity of Harmon’s story telling. Riccardo Hernandez’s set, an open family room framed by a kitchen at the back wall, is comfortable, if fashionably conformist.
So credible is the acting, that even the characters’ excesses, demonstrated in their daily behaviors, hardly surprise us.
Admissions is an engaging evening of theater without fanfare.