Saturday, April 23, 2016

Dry Powder ***

Sarah Burgess must be the luckiest playwright in town. For her New York debut, she scored a top-drawer Public Theater production of this dark comedy about the workings of a private equity firm. The starry cast includes Hank Azaria (Spamalot), Claire Danes (Homeland) and John Krasinski (The Office) and the director is Thomas Kail (Hamilton). The Martinson Theater has been reconfigured with seating on four sides surrounding a starkly minimalist set by Rachel Hauck (Night Is a Room) all in cobalt blue, brilliantly lit by Jason Lyons. The actors are sleekly costumed in business attire by Clint Ramos; even the stagehands are dressed for the office. The production values set a high standard for the play to match. It almost succeeds. Burgess has written snappy dialog for vivid characters: Rick (Azaria), head of KMM Capital, has left Goldman and brought along two proteges, Seth (Krasinski) and Jenny (Danes), as founding partners. Blinded by privilege, Rick has precipitated a P.R. nightmare by holding an extravagant engagement party on the very day that hundreds of employees were laid off at a firm KMM recently acquired. KMM’s "dry powder" (available capital) is threatened when some limited partners, angered at being targeted by demonstrators, have pulled out their investments. Seth brings Rick a deal to acquire Landmark Luggage, a failing California firm that, he maintains, will offer both an opportunity to create American jobs and thereby improve KMM’s reputation, as well as a chance to make serious money. Jenny counters that they can make more money doing their usual “rip and flip,” cannibalizing the firm and selling off its assets. The central conflict is between Seth, a pleasant guy who seems to think that private equity is not inherently evil, and Jenny, a near-robotic number cruncher, whose sole focus is on maximizing profit irrespective of public relations concerns. Jenny, in today’s parlance, is “on the spectrum;” her example alone would be enough to give Asperger’s a bad name. If a man had written her character, he would have without a doubt drawn the wrath of all feminists. Her monomania and ongoing disdain for Seth are a source of many of the play’s laughs. Seth’s values are tested when the plans for the deal he has worked out with Landmark’s CEO Jeff (Sanjit de Silva), seemingly a man of principle, are threatened. Rick adapts to each changing situation without concern for morality or consistency. For most viewers there will be few surprises and little new information about high finance. The play also becomes somewhat cartoonish and repetitive at times. Nevertheless, with its outstanding cast and stylish production, it is often tremendously entertaining. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. 

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