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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Burgess isn't exactly breaking new ground in writing about the human cost of family run, American staffed businesses being taken over by people who, like the MC in Cabaret and Gordon Gekko in Wall Street believe "money makes the world go round" and that "greed is good. But she does so with a crisply constructed, rich with snappy dialogue script that lets none of its four characters off the greedy one-percenter hook — not even the one KMM partner with a conscience and the head of their latest takeover target, a luggage company.
Like the award winning film The Big Short, Dry Powder is unlikely to effect any changes. Nor is it a game changer for the musical theater world like Hamilton, which Thomas Kail also directed. But with a presidential campaign giving evidence of genuine outrage with the one-percent dominated society, it's a timely and important for the theater to tackle dramas about the financial world that continues to do what it does, at the expense of an ever larger segment of our society.
While Dry Powder may indeed be preaching to the chorus, it sure would be misnamed if the first word of its title were taken literally. Kail's slick production and Burgess's snappy, combative dialogue expertly and distinctively delivered by the cast make for a consistently entertaining pacey 95 minutes.
To introduce a sense of urgency to KMM's pursuit of its latest target, it is presented as a life-saver. That's because the company has been caught up in a storm of bad publicty as a result of Rick (Hank Azaria), the company president throwing himself an excessively elaborate engagement party on the same day major layoffs effected by a previous profit propelled deal. So capital reserves, or the dry powder, are low and investors skittishness likely to make things worse. Company co-founder Seth (John Krasinski) sees Jeff Schrader's company Landmark with its American made luggage and willingness to accept a very reasonable offer as the answer to keeping KMM not just afloat but thriving. His colleague Jenny (Claire Danes) while not opposed to the deal, is true to her barracuda nature unwilling to cater to public relations. She cooly dismisses the outcry against the layoffs and Rick's ill-timed party jealousy and "that's what unemployed people do." She therefore remains unapologetically hell bent on doing whatever it takes to come out with the best bottom line. This also causes the play to evolve as a series of debate-like interactions about the pros and cons of Seth's plan to make a profit but not at the expense of liquidating the American employee site and Jenny's take no prisoners approach. The Jenny-Seth confrontations almost work like those old black and white movies in which Rosalind Russell and Kathryn Hepburn's battles with Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy are sure to blossom into romance. Except that for Jenny and Seth love of money makes any other kind impossible.
In the overall scheme of things, Jenny is the super villain of the piece. Her 100% work driven life that makes owning one of Seth's suitcases as unnecessary as she considers job security for his employees, she's almost a caricature of hard-nailed, callous striver. Is there a chilling suggestion here that women can now add immoral, inhumanity as a means for crashing the glass ceiling? Rick is like a swing voter, he hates being hated so he'll listen to whoever is likely to help him maintain the status quo. That makes Seth and Jeff the Landmark president (Sanjit De Silva) the good guys. But unsurprisingly, neither ends up having the fierce conviction that has made Bernie Sanders' campaign a phenomenon.
The actors are all terrific in bringing out the nuances of these varying degrees of sympathy, or lack thereof, elicited by their characters. Claire Danes in a tight fitting tweedy business suit (courtesy Maria Goyanes) and without a single blonde hair out of place is a stunning queen of mean. John Krasinski makes Seth convincingly more likeable and Hank Azaria is on the mark as one of the luxury loving billionaires against whom Senator Sanders has ranted throughout his "feel the Bern" rousing campaign. Sanjit De Silva has the smallest role but he too makes it count. .
To ratchet up the cool, soulless atmosphere, scenic designer Rachel Hauk has created a conference room without trendy acouterments, but just some cool blue cubic forms as chairs and desks. It's all enhanced and punctuated by Jason Lyons' lights and Lindsay Jones's incidental music. Hauk's biggest coup is the way she's reconfigured the theater so that the audience is seated all around that stage, like fans at a boxing ring and a verbal boxing match is what Dry Powder is all about. . Thanks to Mr. Kail's astute blocking, the actors are kept moving around so that wherever you sit, you get to see the characters from all angles. In short, perfect sight lines for all.
I admit that I find plays about people affected by the likes of Ms. Burgess's characters (for example, The Humans ) make more compelling and longer lasting impressions than those about people responsible for their problems. But Dry Powder did leave me looking forward to seeing Sarah Burgess's next play and later this week, the Public's presentation of Tarell Alvin McCraney's Head of Passes.