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Theatre in Review: Dry Powder (Public Theater)

Sanjit De Silva, Claire Danes, John Krasinski. Photo: Joan Marcus

Sarah Burgess wants you to know that those who toil in private equity are remorseless, soulless sharks, devoted solely to the pursuit of money and possessed of a belief in the efficacy of free markets that borders on religious faith. In their view, anyone -- especially workers and labor unions -- who interfere with their Mammon worship constitutes a melanoma on the body politic. Friendship, love, culture, and a social conscience are all secondary to the profit motive. Okay; what's surprising is that Burgess seems to think that this is front page news. Dry Powder aims to be a vital addition to an already well-stocked shelf that includes the Wall Street films and the plays Serious Money, Other People's Money, and Enron. (I suppose you could include The Big Short, although that film focuses on financial malfeasance of another kind.) Of course, every generation needs its malevolent Wall Street drama -- since corruption in the markets never goes out of style -- but Dry Powder is surely a dryer exercise than its author intends.

Rick, Jenny, and Seth are founding partners in KMM Capital Management -- but not all the partners are equal. Rick is the boss and father figure, with Jenny and Seth squabbling and angling for Rick's approval. Seth is genial, charming, and plays well with others; Jenny has an inability to process emotion and a disregard for others that makes her virtually a robot in a power suit. The current point of contention is a luggage firm that Seth has found, which can be had for a song, if that expression can apply to roughly $490 million. His plan: KMM buys Landmark Luggage; retains Jeff, the current CEO, and the labor force; and turns it into an online colossus to rival Samsonite. Jenny's counterplan involves firing everyone, moving the factory to Bangladesh, and leasing the current facility for an extra income stream. The conflict -- creative investment versus scorched-earth profit-hunting -- couldn't be more blatant if Dry Powder were a medieval morality play. And if there is one person in the Public's Martinson Hall who thinks that Seth's growth plan is going to prevail, congratulations on your first-time visit to a theatre. Everyone else in the room knows where this is going.

The predictability of Dry Powder would be less of a problem if Burgess' script had the snap of a heartless Hecht-MacArthur farce or the tension of David Mamet's better exercises in backstabbing and betrayal. (See Ideation, at 59E59, for the real thing.) Dry Powder has plenty of intelligence but it lacks a certain icy appreciation for its characters' skullduggery; Burgess' disapproval of them is so visible that it undercuts her attempts at satire. That Rick is entertaining the Landmark deal at all is because his million-dollar engagement party, complete with elephant, has unleashed a tsunami of bad publicity, causing the firm's limited partners to head for the hills; an ostentatious model project involving the salvaging of an American company is a key component of his image makeover. The many attempts at milking this event for laughs are surprisingly weak, and the characters' barbed remarks about labor unions, TED talks, The Nation, GMAT scores, and other facts of capitalist life tend to fall just short of their marks. The arguments about a 2.8 vs. 3.2-times return on investment aren't all that compelling, and the play's fairly meagre stock of plot twists -- one involving the firm's liquidity and another involving an eleventh-hour maneuver by Jeff -- are less than scintillating.

Thomas Kail's pacey production is harmed by the miscasting of one of the leads. Jenny's steamroller ways -- usually accompanied by the words "I apologize" after the damage is done -- should provide much of the play's acrid wit, but Claire Danes' apparent lack of comfort on stage has an undermining effect. In her early scenes, her delivery is so rushed as to be almost unintelligible; even later, her line readings lack variety, and she has one set of hand gestures for all occasions. It's hard to say what Dry Powder would be like with a different leading lady, but I'm willing to bet a large sum that it would be much improved. Considerably better are Hank Azaria, whose Rick rarely raises his voice because he knows he doesn't have to; John Krasinski as Seth, who enjoys bouncing jokes off the clueless Jenny, and Sanjit de Silva as Jeff, who may or may not be as ingenuous as he looks.

Rachel Hauck's set places the audience on all four sides of the action; the stage is filled with blue boxy units that function as desks, chairs, and other furnishings. Jason Lyons' lighting does a remarkable amount working mostly with toplight; he also creates some pleasing chase sequences, featuring backlit panels on the theatre's walls, set to the throbbing beat of sound designer Lindsay Jones' original music. The costumes, by Clint Ramos, are remarkably detail-perfect; the different between the way Jeff dresses and the suits worn by Rick and Seth speaks volumes about them. In an especially clever touch, the stagehands who handle the scenic transitions appear in corporate drag.

In a way, the predictability factor is built-in: Nobody goes to the Public Theater to see a celebration of capitalism. Still, there's plenty to criticize in our current financial system, or Bernie Sanders wouldn't be getting so many votes. But Dry Powder has little in the way of energy or originality; its observations are too prefabricated and its satire is often reduced to mere finger-wagging. My advice? Consider this one a strong sell. -- David Barbour

(22 March 2016)

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