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Dry Powder

Claire Danes and John Krasinski star in a new play about greed and its consequences.

Hank Azaria, Claire Danes, and John Krasinski star in Sarah Burgess' Dry Powder, directed by Thomas Kail, at The Public Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

While successful business people often tout their "private sector" acumen as a qualification for public office, Mitt Romney had trouble using that sales pitch during his 2012 presidential bid. That's because his business (and the source of much of his wealth) was Bain Capital, a private equity firm involved in the outsourcing of American jobs. Now, just as Romney's party is about to select as its candidate another businessman (one who has built his campaign around hostility to outsourcing and free trade), The Public Theater presents Dry Powder, a sharp new play by Sarah Burgess about the precarious intersection of politics and modern finance. With biting wit and shrewd insight, Burgess pulls back the veil on private equity and gets to the bottom of why it is so especially loathed.

Rick (a somewhat distant Hank Azaria) is the founder and president of KMM Capital Management, a P.E. shop in the business of leveraged buyouts. Founding partner Seth (John Krasinski) has a plan to purchase struggling luggage company Landmark and turn it into a successful online retailer. His colleague Jenny (Claire Danes) would rather gut Landmark and move operations to Bangladesh, firing hundreds of American workers in the process (her analysts show this plan to be more profitable). Rick weighs both options against the backdrop of fallout from their last acquisition, a supermarket chain. KMM announced massive layoffs as Rick celebrated a lavish million dollar engagement party, causing a media firestorm. Like a Greek tragedy, we hear disturbing reports of offstage violence: investors harassed and mass protests organized. Rick has to decide his next move as his junior partners play the angel and devil on his shoulders.

John Krasinski plays Seth, Hank Azaria plays Rick, and Claire Danes plays Jenny in Dry Powder.
(© Joan Marcus)

Danes expertly embodies the latter: Armored in a Narciso Rodriguez power dress and a helmet of blonde hair, Jenny is a vulture capitalist who attributes her success entirely to her own intelligence and will to dominate. She considers Yale University to be a "second-tier Ivy."Danes is particularly good at making Jenny's android-like severity seem plausible and even understandable. "I'm biased toward making decisions based on mathematical calculations, not on maudlin ideas about how the middle class feels on their sofas at night," she tells Rick and Seth, and we believe her: Humanity is not part of her equation.

Her demeanor contrasts highly with Krasinski's Seth, a handsome and affable advocate for the American worker: "You tip the scales too far? You rub your wealth in their faces? The people will rise up. Ask France," states this revolutionary finance bro in response to Jenny's Darwinian capitalism. Krasinski has a likable demeanor that makes us want to trust him…yet this is still the job he has chosen to perform. We wonder why until we realize just how cheaply his scruples are afforded.

Seth's interactions with Landmark CEO Jeff (Sanjit De Silva) are among the play's most fascinating. Jeff wants assurances that his employees will keep their jobs after the buyout. As he negotiates, De Silva chews on every syllable through the permanent smile of a man accustomed to hiding his true feelings during an endless stream of meetings. Krasinski smiles back, offering effusive reassurance. All teeth, they resemble gorillas in the wild, about to rip each other to shreds.

Director Thomas Kail (Hamilton) crafts a sleek production to wrap around these thrillingly caffeinated performances. Lindsay Jones' original electronic music, which surges through the theater during transitions, wouldn't sound out of place at a trendy gym or overpriced cocktail lounge. Costume designer Clint Ramos tailors the clothes to perfection (with the exception of Jeff, whose suit is clearly off the rack at Men's Wearhouse). Rachel Hauck's versatile set consists of monotone blocks and a desk. The audience surrounds the stage while rectangular windows circle the theater, evoking the office buildings that dot lower Manhattan. Ensconced in their glass and steel fortress, these Wall Street warriors plot the conquest of another American business.

Jeff (Sanjit De Silva), Jenny (Claire Danes), and Seth (John Krasinski) share a tense moment in Dry Powder.
(© Joan Marcus)

The contrivance of characters and plot is almost too tidy, inevitably stumbling over itself in the prosecution of an equally orderly narrative, especially after KMM's investors start to revolt. Why are they willing to walk away from massive returns when seemingly no one else is? Are they rich enough to afford principles? Burgress disappointingly glosses over this key point, which may have made her story more complicated (and more truthful) than she intended.

Still, as agitprop, Dry Powder is remarkably effective. When Seth gets up on his soapbox, it is reminiscent of the work of Clifford Odets, minus any actual working-class characters. Unlike Odets, idealism cedes to blunt cynicism as Burgess questions the commitment of well-heeled liberals who espouse progressivism, but are unwilling to put any skin in the game. Say what you will of Jenny and her ilk, but at least we know she says what she means.

On top of offering sympathy for the devil, Burgess is very good at illuminating the often Byzantine world of global finance. Facts and figures are presented in snappy, accessible language so that we never feel lost. This is important since the abusive players in this industry count on their malfeasance being too complicated for the general public to understand. Noting that, Burgess and the Public Theater should be applauded for providing this vital community service.