“It’s an us-versus-them situation right now,” declares a private-equity trader early in Sarah Burgess’s new drama, Dry Powder. The “them” in question? Workers, the middle class, pretty much everyone without millions to invest in private equity. (In other words, most of us.) Now at the Public in a sleek production directed by Thomas Kail, Burgess’s smart, acidic take on the financial-services industry indicts contemporary capitalism through a sharp portrait of the one percent.
KMM Capital Management — the brainchild of Rick (Hank Azaria) and his junior partners, Jenny (Claire Danes) and Seth (John Krasinski) — is a private-equity firm experiencing a little public relations problem. It seems Rick held a lavish, Bali-themed engagement party, at which an elephant was a featured guest, just at the time his firm was dismantling a company and slashing jobs. The press is gleefully eviscerating him as a monster, investors are fleeing, and available capital — the firm’s “dry powder” — is running dangerously low. Good thing Seth’s got a new deal lined up, buying out a foundering California luggage company. But how to manage the transition: Do they pinch pennies, gut the company, and move production overseas? Or do the honorable thing, respect the wishes of CEO Jeff (Sanjit De Silva), and keep the company intact?
This moral tug-of-war unfolds in a series of tense meetings in Rick’s office. (Rachel Hauck’s sterile blue set, all blocky office desks and interchangeable cubes, suggests the ways in which such decisions are made in the abstraction of corporate vacuums, separate from the real lives of the people they affect.) Jenny wants to fire hundreds of Californians, build factories in Bangladesh, and sell suitcases to the emerging Chinese middle class. Pacing in pointy heels, she rattles off harsh calculations and displays an impressive immunity to all human-level concerns (she works one analyst to the point of collapse and later can’t even remember his name). Seth, the anxious moralizer of the bunch, shuttles between meetings with his colleagues and covert beers with Jeff, attempting to reassure the worried CEO that his beloved firm, with all its beloved employees, runs no risk of being stripped and sold for parts.
Burgess is a new voice in New York theater (and an impressive one: Dry Powder won the prestigious Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award before it was produced). The star-studded ensemble supports this first major production, efficiently inhabiting Burgess’s cutthroat world. Danes’s Jenny is uncompromising, tightly wound, and ruthless (“I have an eagle on my shoulder,” she snarls repeatedly at her colleagues). Azaria’s Rick slumps at his desk, sagging beneath the competing pressures of colleagues, family, and finance. Krasinski and De Silva, as trader and CEO, capture the desperation of needing to feel successful — to pay off mortgages, land killer bonuses, fly in private jets — while still telling themselves they’ve done the right thing. The problem, Burgess suggests, is that there’s no right thing to do. No amount of mealy-mouthed moralizing can transform modern capitalism into a humanistic enterprise, and in Burgess’s world, the only person with a consistent moral stance is the completely amoral Jenny.
This repeated ethical tangling does get repetitive: Once we know where Seth and Jenny stand, the squabbling veers from cleverly ironic to preachy and schematic. But even this feels theatrically strategic; the more we hear these equity traders arguing, the more we realize who’s missing from the argument, who’s deliberately not depicted onstage. That would be the rest of us: everyone whose economic future is at stake.
By Sarah Burgess
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street