‘The Low Road’ plays at The Public Theater through April 1. 425 Lafayette St., publictheater.org.
Given the phenomenal success of “Hamilton,” one could certainly understand The Public Theater’s interest in doing another show set in 1776.
Yet “The Low Road,” Bruce Norris’s (“Clybourne Park”) unwieldy and upbeat satire/historical drama/lecture, was inspired by a very different revolutionary event: the publication of Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations,” a foundational economics treatise praising competition and unregulated free markets.
Acting as a narrator, Smith (Daniel Davis, jovial and precise) tells the tale of Jim Trewitt (Chris Perfetti, unapologetically unsympathetic), who is left as an infant on the doorstep of a whorehouse, whose inhabitants believe him to be the illegitimate son of George Washington.
After a chance encounter with Smith and a quick examination of his writing (including the famous line that an individual, acting in his own self-interest, is “led by an invisible hand to promote an end” that promotes the public interest), Trewitt grows up to be a self-centered, obnoxious, temperamental young man.
Forced to leave home, Trewitt embarks on a turbulent journey involving acts of murder, highway robbery, botched courtship and suspicious financial transactions. Trewitt also forms an uneasy relationship with John Blanke (Chukwudi Iwuji), a well-spoken and self-assertive black slave.
At one point, the play shifts forward to an elitist economic forum in the present day and an Occupy Wall Street-style protest. At another: seven-foot tall, bee-shaped aliens emerge out of a fever dream with prophecies of the future.
Michael Greif’s (“Dear Evan Hansen,” “Rent”) two-and-a-half hour production is a boisterous affair with a large ensemble cast, including lively comedic turns from Harriet Harris and Kevin Chamberlin.
One can’t help but compare “The Low Road” with the Broadway musical “Candide,” in which Voltaire (also an 18th-century philosopher) narrates the picaresque adventures of a far more likable young man who also clings to a single simple philosophy.
The philosophical debates among the characters and the comments made to the audience by Smith can be long-winded and didactic, and some of the plot twists are nonsensical. Nevertheless, “The Low Road” is, more often than not, jolly entertainment with a critical sensibility.