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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
. Now Burgess has followed up that crisply constructed and full of snappy dialogue play about the manipulative investment world, with Kings. Like Dry Powder, it's been given a stylish production by the Pubic Theater, this time at their LuEsther Hall. Mega-hit Hamilton's director Thomas Kail is back on board to steer a high profile cast through a hell-bent on reform first-term House of Congress Representative's trajectory through the realities of getting things done without becoming part of politics-as-usual system.
While she's no more worked in Washington than on Wall street, Burgess has tackled the lobby-influenced insider world of our nation's capital with believably authentic detail. As Dry Powder swirled about the workings of a term most people would have a hard time defining, so the equally hard to fully comprehend carried interest loophole that Rep. Millsap wants to eliminate drives the plot of Kings.
Ms. Burgess once again uses four fictional characters to propel her plot: Lobbyists Lauren(Aya Cash) and Kate (Gillian Jacobs). . . Senator John McDowell (Zach Grenier) the Ways and Means chairman who has his eye on the White House. . . Rep. Sydney Millsap, a war widow who has a young son and previously worked as an accountant, whose first effort at legislative reform is a Yes vote on a proposal to end the carried interest loophole. Both McDowell and Millsap are Texans.
The play unfolds at a fast pace through a series of short scenes in multiple locations that begin in December and end a year and a month later at an annual lobby-sponsored event at a Colorado ski resort. Between those book ending scenes the action shifts to various locations. These include a fund-raising call center (also lobby sponsored, in this case to allow legislators to solicit donation which they are prohibited from doing in their congressional offices), and a restaurant serving Texas style hot chili.
These interchanges are mostly one on one conversations without much physical movement. However, the play's most physically and in every other respect dynamic scene involves a heated debate at San Antonio College.
All four actors expertly deliver Burgess's sharp and at times funny dialogue. The script helps them to avoid the trap of portraying their characters as stereotypes. Instead, each comes off as a combative but distinct personality.
No one is an arch villain or indisputable hero. This isn't a contemporary version of Gore Vidal's The Best Man which pitted an ethical, erudite senator against a down-and-dirty one. And Eisa Davis's Representative Millsap is hardly as naively idealistic as Jimmy Stewart's newly appointed senator was in the seminal 1939 Frank Capra film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Powerful corporations with paid lobbyists like Lauren and Kate were not yet part of Washington politics until years later.
Even if they had this money-powered kind of lobbying in the old black and white movie days, Burgess's lobbyists would have been been a romantically involved man and woman. Instead Lauren and Kate are both gay. However, this does not add a thoroughly modern romantic element. Since Lauren is married to a powerful elected official and has a long history with Senator McDowell their gender identities are used merely as a device to point out yet another way lobbyists and legislators are literally in bed with each other.
Despite Cash and Jacobs's able performances, neither Lauren or Kate are especially memorable characters. Thus Burgess's cynical and depressingly realistic take yesteryear's stage and screen dramas, make the battling high-minded and pragmatic politicians more fully rounded and interesting to watch than the follow-the-money lobbyists. Zach Grenier, is unsurprisingly terrific as the Senator whose long-held job as well as the even bigger one he aims to nab take an unexpected turn. Grenier also gets some of the funniest dialogue in another fundraiser scene, this one a Disney character breakfast that has him grumbling about having Mickey waffles seated next to Lauren's podiatrist client and the gremlin from Aladdin.
Eisa Davis, whose credits range from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar to the musical Passing Strange, does a fine job depicting the confidence and vulnerability of Representative Millsap. Both are quite touching in their final meet-up .
As he did with Dry Powder, Director Kail has reconfigured the theater. But instead of seating the viewers all around Anna Louizos's raised platform stage they now sit on just two sides which means that they almost always see the actors only in profile. This is exacerbated by the fact that the actors are almost always seated and thus unable to play to both sides by moving around as they speak.
Two welcome exceptions to these limited views of the actors' faces are The rotating prop bases for a couple of scenes in which two of the actors sit around a table are welcome exceptions to these limited views of the actors' faces. And while I'm quibbling, the props generally have a too similar feel to really clarify all the location for the audience. That said, the stagehands deserve a big bravo since they move these props on and off stage with choreographed precision, and in fun directorial touch act as waiters serving up the steaming dishes in that hot chili restaurant scene. The production also benefits from the top-grade work of the costume lighting, sound designers (Paul Tazewell, Jason Lyons and Lindsay Jones).
Bombarded as we are with real examples of the follow-the-money chicanery in DC, the story of these kings and their enablers doesn't really break any new ground. It's more confirming than inspiring. The only thing really new is the playwright's use of a convoluted tax law as a major plot point. No wonder the Public's Artistic Director Oscar Eustis ends his program note stating that he should but can't be thankful to the DC power players for passing a new tax law with the carried interest loophole in place and so making Kings especially relevant. Judging from he full house at the press performance I attended plus the annoucement of an extension, the unwelcome relevance of Kings isn't going to keep the Public's many fans from buying tickets.
As I admitted in my review of Dry Powder, I find plays with lots of insider revelations about people like Burgess's financial and political game players less compelling than those focusing on the people affected by their power plays (for example, Steven Karam's The Humans and Lynne Nottages <a href="sweat.html"> Sweat ).
Here are links to my review of Dry Powder and its recently opened London productions: the Public Theater review . . the London review.
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Kings by Sarah Burgess
Directed by Thomas Kail
Cast: Public's LuEsther Theater 425 Lfayette Street
Aya Cash (Lauren), Eisa Davis (Representative Sydney Millsap), Zach Grenier (Senator John McDowell), Gillian Jacobs (Kate), and Rachel Leslie (Understudy for Kate, Lauren, and Rep. Sydney Millsap).
Scenic design by Anna Louizos
Costume design by Paul Tazewell
Lighting design by Jason Lyons
Original music and sound design by Lindsay Jones
Stage Manager: CJ LaRoche
Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, no in7ermission
The Public Theater's LuEsther Hall 425 Lfayette Street
From 1/30/18; opening 2/20/1; closing 4/01/18
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 2/18/18 presspreview
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