×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Legit Review: ‘The Low Road’

London bow of new Bruce Norris play is lively, lengthy but thin

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.

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.

The Low Road

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.

Legit Review: 'The Low Road'

More Legit

  • Signature Theatre Celebrates Millionth Subsidized Ticket

    Signature Theatre Offers $35 Subsidized Tickets, Celebrates Millionth Sold

    Just the other night, a Manhattan cab driver told Signature Theatre executive director Harold Wolpert that he couldn’t afford to take his girlfriend to a show. In response, Wolpert motioned to his theater, saying that they offer $35 subsidized tickets. The driver said he’d try it out. “It was a great moment,” Wolpert said. “We’re [...]

  • SOCRATES The Public Theater

    Tim Blake Nelson Waxes Philosophical on Writing a Play About Socrates

    Despite Tim Blake Nelson’s knack for playing folksy characters in films such as “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” in his soul lurks the heart of a classicist. Nelson, who stars in HBO’s “Watchmen” series this fall, has also penned the play “Socrates,” now running at New York’s Public Theater through June 2. Doug Hughes directs, [...]

  • TodayTix - Brian Fenty

    TodayTix Banks $73 Million to Boost Theater and Arts Ticketing App

    TodayTix, a Broadway-born mobile ticketing start-up, is looking to expand into a bigger global media and transaction enterprise with a capital infusion of $73 million led by private-equity firm Great Hill Partners. The investment brings TodayTix’s total capital raised to over $100 million, according to CEO and co-founder Brian Fenty. Part of the new funding [...]

  • Ethan Hawke, Bobby Cannavale and Griffin

    BAM Gala Marks Leadership Change, Celebrates Brooklyn as 'Cultural Center of New York'

    Wednesday’s annual gala celebrating the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) served as a poignant moment of transition for the New York stalwart of contemporary performance. As long-time artistic director Joe Melillo, who along with Harvey Lichtenstein transformed BAM into a vanguard of progressive art, prepares to pass the torch to new leadership, gathered patrons and [...]

  • Tootsie Santino Fontana

    Listen: Santino Fontana on How Broadway's 'Tootsie' Was Adapted for Our Times

    Broadway’s “Tootsie” has turned into one of this season’s Tony Awards frontrunners, winning raves for its deftly funny update of potentially problematic source material — and for a firecracker cast led by Tony nominee Santino Fontana (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Frozen”), who makes his character’s transformation, from difficult actor Michael Dorsey to female alter ego Dorothy Michaels, [...]

  • Death of a Salesman review

    London Theater Review: 'Death of a Salesman'

    August Wilson famously disavowed the idea of an all-black “Death of a Salesman.” In 1996, he declared any such staging “an assault on our presence and our difficult but honorable history in America.” Arthur Miller’s antihero is no everyman, Wilson implied; Willy Loman is very specifically white. Critic John Lahr was inclined to agree: “To [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content