Sex is to Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones what money is to Bruce Norris’ Jim Trewitt, also a foundling living in the 18th century. One of the many remarkable things about Norris’ picaresque tale “The Low Road,” which opened Thursday at the Public Theater, is that this playwright is able to make the unbridled accumulation of wealth as luridly engrossing as lots of sex.
Picaresque tales work much better in novels and movies. On stage, they tend to lack the needed narrative drive. A program note from the Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, calls Norris’ comedy an “anti-‘Candide.'” Thematically, that’s true. But as a piece of theater to be sat through and enjoyed, a successful “Candide” is more to the point. Then again, Eustis might be referring to Voltaire and not Lillian Hellman’s flat, disjointed book for the Leonard Bernstein musical that has required so many rewrites over the years.
Norris’s narrative drive in the first act of “The Low Road” is relentless, and director Michael Greif juggles without respite 18 actors, many triple- and quadruple-cast, across a horny and treacherous colonial American landscape.
Norris and Greif only give us a breath — a very deep breath — when they completely shift gears at the beginning and the end of Act 2. It’s then that Norris surprises us. In addition to being a great storyteller, Norris is a master of surprise on stage.
For anyone who has seen his “Clybourne Park” or “A Parallelogram,” this playwright doesn’t surprise by having a bomb detonate or a monster jump out from behind a door. He surprises by radically altering in a flash the physical space in front of us. Because that space isn’t our mind, as it is when we read a novel, or a screen with moving images at the cinema, we expect a careful progression of time and place on the stage, and Norris disrupts that sense of security and sure-footedness not once but twice in “The Low Road.” Suffice to say that he weaves into his 18th-century story a couple of sci-fi aliens from the future and a 2018 riot at an economic forum.
As for the colonial-era story: The foundling Jim Prewitt quickly emerges as a real nasty piece of work, and is played with incredible nattering energy by Chris Perfetti. The performance brings to mind a very young Paul Ryan in the way this bastard seems to interpret the Bible through the teachings of Ayn Rand. Prewitt begins his career by keeping books for a brothel, and works his way down from there to be a multi-millionaire in old Manhattan.
Along the way, he acquires a slave who calls himself John Blanke (Chukwudi Iwuji). To choose where our sympathies should be, there ought not to be any contest between a slave holder and his slave. However, like George Bernard Shaw at his best, Norris keeps confusing audience allegiances by occasionally having his crass materialist make sense and his put-upon idealist descend into pomposity. Iwuji delivers John Blanke’s repeated displays of ostentatious dignity with great aplomb, while Perfetti’s Prewitt assiduously bulldozes his way to a fortune.
Again like Shaw, Norris is at his funniest when he’s at his most didactic. A dinner party with the newly freed Blanke, the socially outré Prewitt and an assortment of old-money codgers is an uproarious indictment of power, privilege and totally deregulated capitalism.
The huge ensemble includes Harriet Harris and Kevin Chamberlin being deliciously low in a variety of roles. Daniel Davis also provides crackling narration as the one and only Adam Smith, sending up every pretentious Brit who has ever told a classic tale on screen or stage.