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It’s not a good sign when the most vivid memory of a new play is the smell of the sizzling fajitas.
Midway through Sarah Burgess’ drama Kings, world-premiering at the Public Theater, two characters sit down for a business meeting at the chain restaurant Chili’s. During the conversation, one of them suddenly asks, “What is that sound?” Seconds later, a waiter brings in a tray of fajitas as smoke begins to waft across the stage. Not long after we hear them, we smell them. And they smell delicious.
If I’m dwelling a little too long on the culinary aspects of Kings, it’s because the play’s dramatics prove comparatively underwhelming. Burgess, whose previous work, Dry Powder, dealt with shady dealings in the financial world, here tackles Washington politics, particularly the pernicious aspects of lobbying. It’s a timely, relevant topic that well deserves to be examined, but this effort does so in a manner that’s more pedantic than compelling.
The plot revolves around Lauren (Aya Cash), the former top aide to veteran Texas senator John McDowell (Zach Grenier, The Good Wife), who she now lobbies; Kate (Gillian Jacobs, Community and Netflix’s Love), another, less financially successful lobbyist, whose latest effort involves a prospective bill making it mandatory for patients to see a podiatrist before receiving opioids for foot pain (you can guess who her client is); and Sydney Millsap (Eisa Davis), a recently elected African-American congresswoman and Gold Star widow who decides to challenge McDowell for his senatorial seat.
Kings delivers keen observations on the soul-crushing aspects of politics, from the intense lobbying on behalf of trivial laws designed only to further line the already deep pockets of its sponsors to the endless need for fundraising from wealthy donors. Much of the scenario is mordantly funny in its details, such as McDowell’s world-weariness while enduring a “Disney weekend” of fundraising whose first event is the “Hoop Dee Doo Barbecue and Musical Revue in the Magic Kingdom Resort Area.” We also see Millsap forcing herself to make a series of fundraising calls from a call center because congressional rules prevent her from doing so in her office.
Unfortunately, Burgess is so intent on getting her messages across that she fails to provide much depth to the characters and situations. Lauren and Kate seem less like flesh-and-blood people than lobbyists acting on behalf of the playwright’s themes. The politicians are more three-dimensional, particularly Millsap, but they, too, feel mainly consigned to delivering obligatory arguments. Dramatic revelations are continually given short shrift; when Millsap’s electoral chances are severely threatened by a false allegation regarding her late husband, the writer rushes over the information as if the details were unimportant.
The actors do as well as possible with the familiar-feeling material, with Davis coming across strongest as the neophyte congresswoman who discovers her principles will only take her so far. The direction by Thomas Kail (Hamilton), which echoes that of his similar staging of Dry Powder, proves more distracting than necessary, with the audience seated on both sides of the auditorium for no discernible reason and the scenery mainly consisting of ever-shifting chairs and tables that sometimes revolve — as if the actors were performing on Lazy Susans. Like those fajitas, the theatrical busy-ness only serves to highlight the insubstantiality of the drama it’s intended to enhance.
Venue: The Public Theater, New York
Cast: Aya Cash, Eisa Davis, Zach Grenier, Gillian Jacobs
Playwright: Sarah Burgess
Director: Thomas Kail
Set designer: Anna Louizos
Costume designer: Paul Tazewell
Lighting designer: Jason Lyons
Music and sound designer: Lindsay Jones
Presented by The Public Theater
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