Playwright and Alexandria-native Sarah Burgess is known for her sharp-tongued, rapid-fire dialogue and expositions into the underbelly of American institutions. Burgess’ first play, Dry Powder—focusing on the backstabbing world of avaricious Wall Street bankers—debuted at the renowned Public Theatre in 2016 and gained great critical success.
Burgess’ newest play, Kings, delves into the unscrupulous world of quid pro quo of Washington politics. Freshman congresswoman and Gold Star widow Sydney Millsap (Nehassaiu deGannes) arrives in Washington, D.C. eager to spark change and root out corruption, only to find that she must spend the bulk of her time raising money—cold calling rich donors and eating hors d’oeuvres with the disingenuous lobbyists who do their bidding.
At a congressional fundraising retreat in Aspen, Millsap comes head-to-head with two young lobbyists: Lauren (Laura C. Harris), the ex-Chief of Staff for Senator John McDowell from Millsap’s home state of Texas, has cashed in her political influence for a six-figure job as a private sector lobbyist. Unflappable in three-inch heels, well-cut designer clothes and a sleek ponytail at the nape of her neck (Costume Design by Sarah Cubbage), Lauren exudes a polished, calculated remove. Her honey-tongued veneer of cool cordiality is never broached.
Kate (Kelly McCrann), in contrast, is intense and slightly frazzled—worn down by the demands of the job. Clad in sensible suits and loafers, she can barely contain her impatience for Millsap’s naïve idealism and quickly breaks through the niceties to ‘educate’ Millsap (with her Ivy League credentials) as to how Washington ‘really works.’
Texas Senator McDowell (Elliott Bales) is—you guessed it—a genial good ‘ole boy used to getting his way—whether through charm or thinly veiled threats—and is willing to turn a blind eye to pay-to-play politics.
When the four come head-to-head on a political issue, Millsap refuses to compromise her principles, or succumb to the pressures of the deep-pocketed interests Kate and Lauren represent. Instead, Millsap takes on Washington—and McDowell for his Senate seat.
If the plot sounds familiar, look no further than the 1939 movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Nearly 80 years later—and at a time when a record number of women are soon to take seats in the House and Senate—Kings lays out all of the elements of what could be an incisive probe into the Washington politics of the moment.
closes January 13, 2019
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Burgess’ characters are fully wrought, with conflicting personal and professional interests. Her rapid, acid-tongued dialogue is cleverly strewn with veiled insults and smart humor and focuses on up-to-the moment political issues that reveal the true corrupting power of money in politics.
Under Marti Lyon’s direction, each of the four-member cast of Kings deliver near-flawless performances. From their first moments on stage, there is a palpable, emotionally-fueled tension between Lauren and Kate (we learn they previously dated) that leaves the audience enthralled and nervous whenever the two are thrown together. Both Harris and McCann navigate this tension admirably, using it to let slip the more vulnerable details of their personalities and the personal stakes underpinning their professional success.
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Bales and deGannes are also at their best when playing off each other. In a debate between the two Senate candidates, deGannes is magnetic as she struggles to maintain civility, her anger and outrage building like a loaded spring while Bales’ down-home charm and gift for circumlocution barely mask his base contempt.
Yet, for all the groundwork painstaking laid, Burgess’ characters are never forced to evolve, even in their greatest moments of defeat. Millsap remains the ardent, incorruptible force of “good;” while the others continue to answer the corruptive call of money. And, while Kings makes for a genuinely enjoyable, entertaining evening of theatre, it fails to reach a thematic climax, much less a resolution. The audience is left to guess at Burgess’ ultimate message which, at worst, borders on sanctimonious and, at best, leaves little hope for change—personal or political.
Kings at Studio Theatre. Created by Sarah Burgess. Directed by Marti Lyons. Assistant Director John King. Sound Designer and Compose Stowe Nelson. Lighting Design by Jiyoun Chang. Costume Design by Sarah Cubbage. Set Design Luciana Stecconi. Featuring Elliott Bales, Nehaussaiu deGannes, Laura C. Harris and Kelly McCrann. Reviewed by Meaghan Hannan Davant.