By Tulis McCall

The  Low Road, now at The Public Theater, has one of the best First Acts I have ever seen.  It is filled with twists, turns, sleight of hand, surprises and deceptions.  It grabs you by the hand and swoops you into its arms before you have a chance to decline.  In addition, it comes equipped with a dandy cliffhanger.  The First Act, however, is followed by the Second Act.  This particular Second Act might serve as reference material should a person ever be asked to explain the old saw, “That’s a hard act to follow.”

Bruce Norris (the author of Clybourne Park) has taken on another iconic topic and created a tale of the birth of America’s first generation of capitalists.  In a nifty take of dramatic license, he chooses Adam Smith  (a splendid Daniel Davis), the 19th century Scottish Economist and author, as our narrator.  Not that Smith has anything to do with the story itself, but he does with its focus: capitalism.  Jim Trewitt (Chris Perfetti) is a foundling left on the doorstep of Mrs. Trewitt (Harriet Harris), a resident of the Massachusetts Colony somewhere around 1758.  Mrs. T has no children of her own, although she does employ many a young prostitute.  She takes Jim in, ignoring the prophesying of Old Tizzy (Crystal A. Dickinson) who pronounces this child N-o G-o-o-d.  Fast forward 18 years and Jim is not only running the whorehouse, he has taken control of the cash flow.  The workers get nothing other than a roof over their heads and enough to keep them alive.  Jim “invests” the rest in promising enterprises.  When the proverbial ships comes in, there will be plenty to go around – but not right now.  Hmmmmmmnnnn…. sound familiar?

Jim’s nefarious ways paint him into a corner and force him to skip town.  Not empty-handed.  Once on the road he buys what he needs, including a slave, John Blake (Chukwudi Iwuji) who is a whole lot more than Jim bargained for.  Travels lead the two into Connecticut, and the plot’s path takes some major swoops and jumps.  All the while Jim is preaching the value of trickle down economics with such abandon and condescension that pretty much every one rejects him and every plan goes ass over teakettle.  The surprises come without pause, and nothing is what or where you expect it to be until Smith calls a halt to the tale and encourages us all to make the most of the interval.

THE LOW ROAD; Kevin Chamberlain and Chukwudi Iwuji; Photo by Joan Marcus

As I said the Second Act does not fare so well.  The first scene is a shocker that I will not reveal.  Suffice it to say that it lays out Norris’s premise in spades.  As we continue with Jim’s tale, we watch him refuse to bend in his capitalistic patriotism, even as the fates betray and beguile him.  It is a credit to Norris’s spare writing that history is not shoved down our throats.  The revelations of the times in which these characters live are plot and character driven.  Oh, we learn, but we learn because of the characters.

THE LOW ROAD; Crystal A. Dickinson and Harriet Harris; Photo by Joan Marcus

The specific story line, however, leaves the barn and begins to wander about.  The focus we saw in the first act is lacking here, and in some ways the play becomes more like life itself.  One thing happens after another.  The characters are engaging and every actor in this well-oiled ensemble is terrific (18 actors play 44 characters).  Special mention must be made of Harriet Harris who is superb as each of her many characters and Crystal Dickinson who is a chameleon of the highest order.  Still, they cannot right the trajectory.  The direction is spare and inventive in the small space allotted to it (although Mr. Davis’s narration has been directed to the center section of the audience – hence the people in the side seats are often left to view his profile and backside).

Technically, everything is in the right place at the right time.  Everything except that pesky storyline that refuses to stay the course.  As a result, the second act drags on too long, with a penultimate scene that is so detached from the story line it appears to have wandered in from another theatre altogether, and the evening peters out to a flat and confusing conclusion. Too bad.

THE LOW ROAD Written by Bruce Norris Directed by Michael Greif

WITH Tessa Albertson, Max Baker, Kevin Chamberlin, Daniel Davis, Crystal A. Dickinson, Gopal Divan, Harriet Harris, Jack Hatcher, Chukwudi Iwuji, Johnny Newcomb, Chris Perfetti, Susanna Perkins, Richard Poe, Dave Quay, Aaron Ray, Joseph Soeder, and Danny Wolohan

Scenic Design: David Korins; Costume Design: Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design: Ben Stanton; Sound Design: Matt Tierney; Wig, Hair & Makeup Design: J. Jared Janas and Dave Bova; Composer: Mark Bennett; Music Coordinator: Wayne Barker

The Public Theater (Artistic Director, Oskar Eustis; Executive Director, Patrick Willingham) presents the American premiere of THE LOW ROAD, part of The Public’s Astor Anniversary Season at their landmark downtown home on Lafayette Street, celebrating 50 years of new work and the 50th Anniversary of HAIR. THE LOW ROAD will run through Sunday, April 1. TICKETS