Dry Powder is a play about a private equity firm that tries to buy a luggage company, but it is not as dry as it sounds, and not just because its cast includes John Krasinski (formerly of The Office), Claire Danes (Homeland) and Hank Azaria (The Simpsons), and it’s directed by Thomas Kail (Hamilton.)
The play by Sarah Burgess, which has opened at the Public Theater, is reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie Wall Street, presenting a behind-the-scenes look at the financial power players who pull the levers of our economy. For much of its 95-minute running time, Dry Powder also seems to share that movie’s Manichean worldview — the evil corporate raiders (Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko character in Wall Street saying “Greed is Good”), who ruin the lives of workers, versus the people on the side of businesses that actually make things (the Martin Sheen and Hal Holbrook characters), and respect the dignity of employees.
Claire Danes’ character Jenny seems closest to the Gekko character, but with a virtual absence of social skills. Jenny doesn’t enjoy parties and never takes vacations, but if she did, it would be an airplane ride over Antarctica looking out the window; “I’d be back in a day.” Jenny is one of the founding partners of KMM Capital Management. Her rival in the firm is fellow founding partner Seth (Krasinski), who is proposing the Landmark Luggage deal with the aim not just of increasing revenue but creating new jobs in the company, working in collaboration with the CEO of Landmark, Jeff (a perfectly cast Sanjit De Silva as a deceptively good guy.)
Seth believes this potential deal has the potential to save KKM. As the play begins, we learn that the private equity firm is facing a crisis, set off by its having forced massive layoffs at a national supermarket chain it had acquired, on the exact same day that Rick, KKM’s president (Azaria) threw an extravagant engagement party for himself and his wife – which got him trashed in the New York Times, and provoked protests against KKM’s investors, called LPs (limited partners.) Jenny doesn’t see this as a crisis: “Our LPs aren’t going to abandon us because some jealous reporters made fun of your party elephants,” she tells Rick.
“Elephant,” Rick replies. “There was just one.”
“Thought I saw two,” Jenny says.
“Why does everyone think there were two?”
Jenny is happy for the Landmark deal to go through, but she advocates essentially gutting the company, selling its assets and laying off most of its employees; KKM would make more money that way.
To this central conflict is added an entertaining layer of competitiveness between Seth and Jenny. They argue over everything, including who had the higher GMAT test score for graduate school, and whether Jenny got into Harvard Business School because of what Seth puts (in what may pass for delicacy on Wall Street) as Jenny’s “gender strength.” Their very body language underscores their differences – Danes is stiff with constricted movement (which seems the actor’s deliberate choice), Krasinski is usually more laid back, and speaks with his hands (sometimes without verbal accompaniment.)
Their banter is as amusing in its way as the repartee by the couple in a romantic comedy who start off loathing one another – except in this play, Seth and Jenny most certainly do not wind up falling in love. The playwright’s interest is elsewhere. She has something pointed and sophisticated to say about the economic engine and the people who drive it, and she does so with a couple of unexpected twists.
Kail has opted for resonant simplicity, turning the Public’s Martinson Hall into a theater in the round – subtly suggesting gladiators in an arena, which may also explain the brief onslaught of Jason Lyons’ pounding light show and Lindsay Jones’s percussive-heavy original music in-between scenes. Rachel Hauck’s set consists of nothing more than the kind of blue cube-like furniture frequently used in kindergarten classes – perhaps suggesting how childish these players are, although the consequences are anything but child’s play.
The title of this play is financier’s lingo – there is plenty of that in the script, most of which is easy to figure out (although it would have been nice for the Public to have included a glossary in the program.) “Dry powder” is Wall Street slang for marketable securities that (quoting from Investopedia here) “are highly liquid and considered cash-like.” It can’t be a coincidence that Burgess chooses as the title of this thought-provoking play a term that money people employ to mean cash, but that for regular people invokes an explosion about to happen.
Dry Powder is on stage at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette St., New York, N.Y. 10003 ) through May 1, 2016
Written by Sarah Burgess. Directed by Thomas Kail. Featuring Hank Azaria, Claire Danes, Sanjit De Silva and John Krasinski. Scenic design by Rachel Hauck, costume design by Clint Ramos, lighting design by Jason Lyons, original music and sound design by Lindsay Jones, production stage manager Scott Rowen. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.