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The Drowning Pool
The Low Road
Written by Bruce Norris; directed by Michael Greif
Performances through April 1, 2018
Kevin Chamberlain, Harriet Harris and Chris Perfetti in The Low Road (photo: Joan Marcus)
Bruce Norris takes the title of his play The Low Road—a “wink wink nudge nudge” peregrination through the beginnings of American capitalism—literally, so much so that he liberally sprinkles coarseness throughout, thereby weakening the potency of his jaundiced picaresque journey.
Our hero Jim Trewitt (get it? “True Wit”?), a bastard infant taken in by the proprietress of a Massachusetts tavern/brothel in 1758, grows up with a remarkable facility for mathematics and finance. In 1776, as the adult Jim (a rather charmless and one-note Chris Perfetti) encounters slaves and freedmen, British loyalists and Hessian mercenaries, nouveau riche and salt-of-the-earth colonialists, his episodic story resembles—or steals from—classic literature like Tom Jones, Barry Lyndon and Candide.
Problems abound. Why use the father of capitalism Adam Smith—in a delightfully witty turn by Daniel Davis—as our simple narrator without giving him anything substantial to do? Why is the dialogue so peppered with profanity, however much it tickles supposedly sophisticated New York audiences? Why do Norris and his able director Michael Greif empty their bag of tricks in the first act, the intentional anachronisms, juvenile humor and constant stage busyness all taking their exhausting toll?
Then there’s the curveball that opens the second act: a tedious reenactment of a stuffy academic conference about capitalism in the 21st century, in which a snide moderator and her smug panelists (including a descendent of Trewitt himself) trade various truisms before it’s all broken up by anarchic protestors. Returning to the late 18th century, Norris and Greif completely lose control of the play, which limps home with few pertinent observations about and fewer insights into the uncontrollable forces of capitalism.
The mostly fine cast features enjoyable turns by Davis as Smith and Kevin Chamberlain and Crystal A. Dickinson in various roles. But then there’s Harriet Harris, whose hammily overdone acting underscores the flabbiness of the 2-1/2 hour The Low Road that could have been excised by an invisible hand like Adam Smith’s.
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY
Jerry Springer: The Opera
Music & lyrics by Richard Thomas; book & additional lyrics by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas
Directed by John Rando; choreographed by Chris Bailey
Will Swenson and Terrence Mann in Jerry Springer: The Opera (photo: Monique Carboni)
There might not be an easier pop-culture target than The Jerry Springer Show, that televised train wreck that ruled the syndicated airwaves in the ‘90s with a bedraggled parade of clueless clods, trailer-trashy inbreds and other low-rent guests which its audience—both in the studio and at home—laughed at knowingly and groaningly. That there was often a battle royale between guests (broken up by Jerry’s goons) only added to its guilty-pleasure quotient.
So to make a parody called Jerry Springer: The Opera is the height of obviousness—and pointlessness. To marry lowbrow with (supposed) highbrow, composer-lyricist Richard Thomas and lyricist Stewart Lee went all in: lines like “What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fucking fuck?” are intoned by an angelic-sounding chorus, literally mating the sacred and the profane. And having Jerry get shot during one of his shows, descend into a hellish purgatory where he’s met by Satan and told to do a show for Satan’s benefit to avoid an eternity of hellfire, is an idea as unoriginal as it is awful.
Right from the beginning, non-stop cursing is set to heavenly music (the songs are listenable but blandly opera-lite) and the show devolves into self-satisfied nastiness, with an already riled-up audience egged on by Jerry’s crazed warm-up man, as the host himself shepherds the sordid enterprise.
A little of this goes a very long way: the first act comprises Springer Show guests with hidden secrets like a husband who wears diapers and admits to his wife that taking a shit turns him on, or a plain wife who secretly wants to be a pole dancer. Actual episodes of The Jerry Springer Show didn’t put on airs about such people, instead taking them at face value. Here, condescension is present from the start, and a repetitive first act ends rather desperately with a Ku Klux Klan dance number done better (and funnier) by Mel Brooks’ Nazis in The Producers.
The second act, in which Satan demands an apology for being tossed out of paradise, leading to appearances by Jesus, Mary and even God Almighty, might be blasphemous to some, but it’s sophomoric and juvenile to most, never approaching the sinful satire it aims for, instead lazily relying on its one-note, single-joke conceit to stretch itself past the two-hour mark.
In 2003 when this premiered—or 2008, when it was performed at Carnegie Hall—Jerry Springer: The Opera might have seemed daring or prescient. But now—in a world dominated by a benighted and dangerous simpleton in the White House—the show has been outstripped by reality.
John Rando’s smart staging features Derek McLane’s typically superior set, which cleverly bleeds into the theater itself for some semi-audience participation. Effortlessly playing multiple roles is a dazzling cast of 18, whose voices soar into the stratosphere.
While Terrence Mann’s Jerry (a largely non-singing role, with a forgettable ballad thrown in) makes Springer more than just a caricatured ringmaster, Will Swenson, as Jerry’s Warm-Up Man and Satan, is having so much wild-eyed fun—he looks unsettlingly like Charles Manson, maniacal stare and all—that it’s easy to go along for the ride, bumpy as it ultimately is.
The New Group, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
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