There are not many towns which could be riveted by a tale which revolves around the tax treatment that carried interest gets, but, by God, Washington is one of them. Of course, the carried interest argument is just the lever by which playwright Sarah Burgess gets to larger moral issues, including the power and use of money and the cost of integrity in politics, in this smart, clever but ultimately not fully satisfying play, now being presented in audio form by Studio Theatre.
Kings, which Studio presented on stage in December of 2018 (Meaghan Hannan Davant’s DCTS review) is the story of Representative Sydney Millsap (Gina Daniels) of Texas, a prickly accountant and Gold Star widow who finds herself in Congress, apparently as a result of a special election. Millsap is no fire-eating radical, but she does have strong feelings about carried interest, which she thinks should be taxed as ordinary income rather than as capital gains. (Carried interest is the fee which private equity hedge fund managers get – usually 20% — when their funds perform over a preset hurdle rate – generally 8%. Treated as capital gains, they are taxed at 20%; as ordinary income, the Federal tax for most managers is 37%).
Aside from her uncompromising views on carried interest, Millsap radiates a genuine contempt for American politics and in particular money’s role in it. She is nonetheless compelled to raise funds nonstop, making calls from her car since ethics rules prevent her from making them from her office. Early in the play she finds herself at loggerheads with two lobbyists, Lauren (Laura C. Harris) and the flammable Kate (Kelly McCrann), simply because their profession requires them to try to influence her, and to raise money for her reelection if they do.
The great white whale of Texas politics, in this story, is Senator John McDowell (Rick Foucheux). He has his eye on the White House, and Lauren, who used to be his Chief of Staff, is there to provide moral, strategic and financial support. A bill to treat carried interest as ordinary income passes the House, with Millsap’s support, and McDowell has the impossible task of killing it in the Senate, to please his financial backers, without alienating the many supporters of the popular legislation. He tries to persuade Millsap to take a lucrative private-sector job. Instead, she decides to primary him.
Burgess, an Alexandria native, gets the mind-numbing minutia of federal politics exactly right. We imagine that our Representatives spend their days in high-level debate over world-defining matters, but when Millsap is not phoning potential donors she is dealing with proposals like Kate’s idea to fight the opioid crisis by requiring that a podiatrist approve any opioid prescription to fight foot pain (Kate’s clients, of course, are the podiatrists.)
Burgess is less successful in presenting fully realized characters. Part of this is due to the playwright’s obligation to develop conflict within the hundred-minute confines of her story; in the frictionless universe of professional politicians and lobbyists, direct confrontation is as unthinkable as cannibalism. Millsap’s outspoken rudeness – at her own fundraiser! – is at first shocking and later seems self-indulgent. Kate responds in kind, thus marking her as amateur.
Given how skillfully Burgess develops her theme about the toxic affect of money on democracy, it seems curious that her most sympathetic character is Senator McDowell. It helps, of course, that old pro Foucheux handles the role. Recently retired after a storied DC stage career, Foucheux brings out all the complexity that Burgess writes into McDowell. The Texas Senator is a servant of monied interests, cagey and manipulative, and he lies as easily as he breathes – perhaps more easily in allergy season. Yet he is instinctively compassionate. He and his wife provided a familial welcome to Lauren when her family of origin rejected her because she was gay. And he looks for a soft landing for Millsap even as he plots her destruction.
During a debate with Millsap, McDowell asks a crucial question: If we ban political donations, will only the wealthy be able to run for office? I would have loved to hear the answer, but unfortunately Burgess diverts the discussion by having McDowell make a fundamental misstep a few seconds later.
The actors do good work. It takes a bit of patience to wade through the first wonky conversation between Lauren and Kate, but Harris and McCrann establish their characters’ separate personalities quickly, and convincingly. McCrann has the harder task; Kate’s impulsiveness and explosiveness make her an unlikely lobbyist, but McCrann manages to create someone who could be in the lobbyist community, at least at the fringes, at least for a while. Harris’ Lauren is a more perfect fit: she has the lobbyist’s gift – to believe what she wants to believe notwithstanding the evidence. (The type is not that uncommon). When Kate and Lauren have their final confrontation, I bought it completely. You will too.
At first, I had difficulty figuring out exactly who Daniels’ Millsap was. A figure like Ann Richards comes to mind immediately, both for the Texas accent and because of her taste for the salty rejoinder. But the late Texas Governor was a thousand times smoother and more ingratiating than Millsap. In the end, I was able to accept her as no more than she appeared to be: a principled citizen, stubborn, who finds herself in a place which requires skills not in her possession.
And Foucheux, of course, is marvelous.
If you listened to the old radio dramas when they played back in the Mesozoic (or if you listen to them now, preserved on WAMU) you know that they thrived on sturdy, uncomplicated plot lines and a stirring climax. You may wonder whether Kings, with its wonky, complex story which ends with a whimper, not a bang, would translate well into the medium. Well, worry no further. Principally a four-hander (Brian Quijada plays a bevy of cameos), the play is easy to follow, principally due to the uncluttered direction of Marti Lyons and the skill of the actors. Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design is clean and unobtrusive, and – outside of a few beats at the outset of the play – there will never be a moment where you’re confused about what’s going on, or why.
If Studio was offering this for seventy-five simoleans a ticket, I’m not sure what my recommendation would be, but in fact Studio is able to offer it at my favorite price, free, at this link. So it’s a no-brainer. You should listen it, enjoy its home truths, and think about what it says.
Kings, by Sarah Burgess . Directed by Marti Lyons . Featuring Laura C. Harris, Kelly McCrann, Gina Daniels, Rick Foucheux and Brian Quijada . Sound design: Mikhail Fiskel . Dramaturg: Adrien-Alice Hansel . Audio Engineer: Ben Truppen-Brown . Production research and original dramaturg: Lauren Halvorsen . Dialect consultant: Nancy Krebs . Stage manager: Allie Roy . Produced by Studio Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.