With 20 actors racing between 50 roles across a time-traveling plot, Bruce Norris’ “The Low Road” is a cross between a pageant and a parable. Dominic Cooke’s supremely witty, fleet-footed production has ebullience aplenty to match this attractively ambitious satire of free-market economics. But even with all guns blazing, the production cannot disguise the fact that, unlike Norris’ “Clybourne Park,” beneath the freewheeling, scornful surface there’s more attitude than substance.
“I’m saying we’ve crashed the car once; do we really want to hand the keys back to the same drunken driver?” So says retired financier Ed (Ian Gelder) at the G8-style conference that opens the second act. His idea and, evidently, Norris’, is that it might be time to regulate financial markets that have so warped the productive economy. However, the entire (very funny) scene comes as a surprise since the rest of the play takes place in the mid-late 18th century.
Alighting upon the fact that the still-revered economist Adam Smith’s most famous thesis “The Wealth of Nations” was published in the not-insignificant year of 1776, Norris uses Smith as narrator for this portrait of the abiding American principle of the pursuit of profit. Thus smiling, peerlessly droll Bill Paterson sets up and effortlessly drives the picaresque adventures of anti-hero Jim Trumpett (Johnny Flynn) discovered as an infant in 1759 on the doorstep of a whorehouse.
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Trumpett, who may or may not be the bastard child of George Washington, grows and wises up fast. From taking personal control of the whorehouse’s finances, he inveighs against the notion of taxation (while creaming off profits for himself) and becomes ever more ruthlessly self-serving before launching himself upon the world.
Sketch-like early scenes acquire more resonance once he buys a slave, John Blanke. In Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s beautifully effortless performance, Blanke has all the acuity, compassion and grace that Trumpett lacks. Of course, what Blanke doesn’t have is the power that comes with free self-determination. From there on in, their stories are literally and metaphorically shackled together.
With a flair for 18th-century swagger and linguistic pastiche, it’s as if Norris is rewriting Fielding’s “Tom Jones” or an inverted version of “Candide.” Like the latter, Trumpett repeatedly learns nothing new, but he applies his persuasive economic logic to every circumstance he meets, climaxing in his control of the finances of wealthy benefactors Isaac Low (John Ramm) which he takes into the disastrous and borderline illegal realms of debt purchase with increasingly fatal consequences.
This whistle-stop tour of moral and financial double-dealing offers ample opportunity for a succession of comic turns, but enjoyable though much of the jokey ride is, the play hits repeat mode early. Having posited its position, it merely underlines it.
Tom Pye’s highly versatile design creates multiple locations with, striking economy and the quick-change actors seize every opportunity. Elizabeth Berrington scores particularly highly as a madam, a charity-loving society hostess and, best of all, a patronizing and pressurized conference hostess.
Simon Paisley Day too shines as a dim but sly army officer and brings dignity to the mentally disabled Poor Tim, who has the play’s closing sad moment. His character’s inability to cope, much less thrive, in the economics that engulf him directly echoes the close of Caryl Churchill’s influential “Top Girls,” which, three decades ago, also showed the personal cost of selfish economics. The comparison is, alas, not in Norris’s favor.
The most intriguing thing about the play is that it is receiving its world preem in London. If any U.S. theater has the resources to mount a show of this scale, its assault on its home country’s finances and philanthropic underpinning may land a bigger punch.
Royal Court Theater, London; 386 seats; (£28) $42 top
A Royal Court Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Brice Norris. Directed by Dominic Cooke.
Sets and costumes, Tom Pye; lighting, Jean Kalman; sound, Carolyn Downing; music, Gary Yershon; movement, Imogen Knight; production stage manager, Nafeesah Butt. Opened, reviewed March 27, 2013. Running time: 3 HOURS.
With Johnny Flynn, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Bill Paterson, Elizabeth Berrington, Ian Gelder, Simon Paisley Day, John Ramm, Jared Ashe, Jack Benjamin, Kit Benjamin, Helen Cripps, Raj Ghatak, Natasha Gordon, Ellie Kendrick, Edward Killingback, Fredrick Neilson, Harry Peacock, Leigh Quinn.