'Dry Powder': Theater Review

Dry Powder - Hank Azaria, Claire Danes, and John Krasinski -H 2016
Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Prime assets in a low-yield investment.

Hank Azaria, Claire Danes and John Krasinski play hardball with the American economy in Sarah Burgess' drama at the Public Theater, staged by 'Hamilton' director Thomas Kail.

After coordinating the countless moving parts that go into the churning saga of Hamilton on stage, and then solving the head-spinning logistical challenges of Fox's Grease: Live on TV, it's understandable that gifted director Thomas Kail might be drawn for his next assignment to a four-character play in a single stylized setting. Although his production of Dry Powder is as sharp as the dialogue, cheekbones and immaculately tailored power suits of its three main characters, this rather obvious work by Sarah Burgess revolves around the not exactly startling revelation that private equity firms are no place for the faint of heart. While the title refers to cash reserves, it could just as easily describe the dramatic substance of the play's blunt economics lesson.

There's a reason many of us stopped reading those depressing New York Times op-ed pieces about the U.S. finance sector, since it's long been clear that the industry's questionable practices generally go unchecked, even as wealth inequality widens and American jobs and manufacturing suffer. Long before the global financial crisis, corporate raiders who manipulate companies for massive personal gain with little concern for the human losses involved were already routine fodder for dramatic demonization in movies — whether in cautionary tales like Wall Street or fairy tales like Pretty Woman. So the most surprising thing about Burgess' play is how thoroughly unsurprising it is. That's disappointing, as a lot of A-grade talent has been assembled for this vigorously acted Public Theater world premiere.

Hank Azaria plays Rick, the founder and president of KMM, a New York capital management outfit. He's squirming through a PR nightmare after his lavish $1 million engagement party — quite literally an elephantine affair — coincided with massive layoffs at a national supermarket chain following his firm's leveraged buyout. The media is crucifying him and protesters are going after his investors. "They're just a bunch of socialists and whack jobs," scoffs one of his two subordinate founding partners, Jenny (Claire Danes), a barracuda who is basically Patrick Bateman without the chainsaw.

The other partner, Seth (John Krasinski), still has a shred of humanity. Coming up with a plan to make money for the company while repairing some of the damage, he proposes buying Landmark Luggage, providing a cash infusion that will help the struggling California-based manufacturer transition into the bespoke suitcase market. Seth has spent six months getting Landmark CEO Jeff Schrader (Sanjit De Silva) on board with the strategy at a bargain price, offering personal financial incentives as well as the assurance that the buyout will not mean layoffs.

Viewing himself as a visionary leader, Seth wants to grow the financially viable company and then exit in profit. The unapologetically vampiric Jenny, on the other hand, wants to buy and liquidate for a larger, shorter-term payoff, reminding her colleagues that they work in finance, not public relations. Seth nervously perceives public opinion of their firm as hatred, while the untroubled Jenny dismisses it as jealousy.

Rick doesn't pretend to be anyone's friend. He weighs every possible scenario in the deal, including shifting Landmark's production offshore, thereby negating Seth's promises to Jeff. The outcome hangs in the balance right down to the scheduled signing of a letter of intent, when Jeff understandably gets cold feet, suggesting an alternative approach to Seth. Rick's thinking also is influenced by his flirtation with a major new limited partner, a Chinese arms dealer denaturalized by his own government.

From the opening scene, in which Jenny rehearses ideas for a speech to an NYU finance class, the play's tone is tart and cynical, its humor dipped in acid, so it fulfills expectations when the Landmark deal gets compromised and the human casualties are shrugged off. The twisty financial details are mapped out with admirable clarity in Burgess' writing, but that doesn't make it any less predictable.

In a last-ditch attempt to argue for his redeeming plan, Seth asks why regular Americans should continue to have any faith in capitalism. "At some point, people lose hope," he reasons. "And at some point that hopelessness could put us in danger." The play is preaching to an audience that presumably has enough of an understanding of the path of contemporary American finance, from Reaganomics to the present, to know that — election campaign promises aside — deliverance at this point seems unlikely. That makes it tempting to join Jenny in rolling our eyes at Seth's beleaguered idealism. Burgess makes observant points about the inexorable decimation of the American middle class, but again, those points are hardly new.

The combination of a hot director and a name cast has caused the play to sell out its entire run even before opening. Kail distills the 100-minute drama into a fast, fat-free staging in the round, on an elevated dais that floats above a shallow pool of cool blue fluorescent. His careful blocking reflects each character's respective command of the situation, from Rick's cagey authority to Jenny's snaky antagonism and Seth's stubborn integrity. He's by far the most principled of them, and Krasinski has some affecting moments toward the end, even if Seth is not above behaving in a patronizing manner toward Jeff in their scenes together. All four actors have a firm grasp of their characters and bring plenty of bite to the dialogue, which keeps it engrossing and often quite funny.

Designer Rachel Hauck's set consists of cobalt blue module furniture — hollow cubes and rectangular blocks that serve as tables, desks, chairs, benches, etc. Accompanied by blasts of brooding techno music between scenes, sleekly attired stagehands who look like extras from a 1980s Robert Palmer video flip these pieces and then gradually remove them, leaving the stage bare. But this is an unrewarding, one-dimensional play that requires no visual metaphor to reinforce its depiction of a cold, mercenary world without moral solace.

Venue: Public Theater, New York
Cast: Hank Azaria, Claire Danes, Sanjit De Silva, John Krasinski
Director: Thomas Kail
Playwright: Sarah Burgess
Set designer: Rachel Hauck
Costume designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting designer: Jason Lyons
Music and sound designer: Lindsay Jones
Presented by the Public Theater