If the phrase “leveraged buyout” makes you immediately think “so 1980s,” Sarah Burgess’ Dry Powder might not be the play for you. On the other hand, if you think LBOs died with the Greed Decade, perhaps you should force yourself. As an enticement, this world premiere at the Public Theater features a cast more common to Broadway these days: Hollywood stars rarely seen practicing their craft in the flesh. Burgess, a new voice, has given Claire Danes (Homeland), John Krasinski (13 Hours, The Office), Hank Azaria (The Simpsons) and Sanjit De Silva (After Party) raw meat to chew on. Pay attention.
We are in the Manhattan offices of KMM Capital Management, which specializes in acquiring struggling businesses, loading them up with debt, stripping them bare and selling off the carcasses, human and inanimate. Rick (Azaria) runs the firm with his protégés Jenny (Danes) and Seth (Krasinski). Rick has chosen them in part to play them off one another as each seeks not only his approval but the destruction of the counterpart. The result is generally a win for all of them, but at the play’s open, KMM is suffering from a public relations fiasco: Rick went ahead with a lavish engagement party (whether there was more than one elephant is a subject of contention) at the same time they were laying off workers at their latest target, and The New York Times has had a field day covering the parallel events. Also, their cash on hand — the dry powder of the title — is perilously low.
Seth had advised postponing the party. Jenny advised staying the course (“I don’t waste time trying to prevent outcomes I can’t prevent”) and continues to insist that Rick stop worrying about it. (Jenny: “Who takes the Times seriously?” Rick: “The Earth. The entire Earth.”) All three of them have minds that operate at warp speed, especially Jenny and Seth as they try to dazzle Rick. So when Seth presents a takeover that will make money and soften the PR blow, Jenny smells blood and moves in quickly for the kill. Seth has identified a company that manufactures custom-made luggage and sells it online. The price is low and even with the huge debt they will sock the company with, it will make money. (Seth: “Gutting a functional American business is the very last thing we need to be doing now.”) The president of the company, Jeff (De Silva), is eager to make the deal for the owner, who just wants to cash out.
You probably can see where this is going. Jenny, who would have ice in her veins if she had veins, agrees to the plan but only in order to fire everyone and sell off the company piecemeal. Seth thinks that for a little less profit, they can keep the company going and offset the bad rap from the latest layoffs, and he’s promised Jeff that Landmark would survive. What’s Rick to do?
Burgess writes smart dialogue that crackles, and the play is peppered with authentic finance-guy terms like “quartile.” There are echoes of Caryl Churchill and David Hare in the theme of corporate dehumanization, though Burgess, like David Mamet, say, is more focused on the soulless principals than on the folks who will suffer the consequences of their actions. Dry Powder lacks the concision and the devastating rhythmic patois in Mamet plays like Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-The-Plow, a ruthless poetry. That makes for a very long unbroken hour and three-quarters. Director Thomas Kail (following his success with Hamilton and Grease Live) has placed the action in the round — an appropriately arena-like setting — in Rachel Hauck’s chilling minimalist environment, made more so by Jason Lyons’ cool lighting scheme.
I suspect the actors will loosen up as the run continues, but at the critics’ performance I saw they seemed uncomfortable and stiff, as if exploring the play in an early reading. Danes and Krasinski especially seem ill at ease, lurching where a shark-like, confident quickness is called for. On the other hand, Dry Powder is not a play I think I’d ever settle into comfortably. The point, I guess.