By Stanford Friedman
Anyone who has spent evenings out in Manhattan and Washington can identify the similarities and differences. Players in both cities are consumed by money and power. In New York, that twin fetish manifests itself through fashion, but in DC it is established through politics. Sarah Burgess’ captivating new play, Kings, while staged at NYC’s fabled Public Theater, is a deep dig into the financial interests and power grabs of DC’s elected officials and the lobbyists who love them. Well, love is too sympathetic a term. The interactions between the four usually icy characters we encounter here are not so much emotional as they are mutually parasitic.
Kate (Gillian Jacobs) is a medical industry lobbyist with “the best healthcare mind in Washington.” Her rival, or perhaps her colleague (In politics, the two are far from mutually exclusive.), is Lauren (Aya Cash), an expert on tax policy. It is a tribute to the natural charm of the two actors and Burgess’ sharp ear, that their wonk talk is never less than intriguing. Eventually, Kate casts her lot with Representative Sydney Millsap (Eisa Davis), a congresswoman eager to cut through red tape and shake up the establishment. Millsap decides to run for Senate against career politician John McDowell (career character actor, Zach Grenier), who is a pal of Lauren’s. Money and influence fuel the fires and in this tightly edited script that keenly pulls focus back and forth between the candidates and their underlings, and takes just the right leaps in time between scenes, we survey the burnout without witnessing the actual arson.
It is a wicked premise that the playwright establishes: elected officials can easily be destroyed, but behind-the-scenes players go on forever with cockroach-like survival skills. Kate attributes it to ego, telling Milsap, “Like all lawmakers you are susceptible to flattery…long after you’ve been voted out next year, I will be in DC and Lauren will be in DC.” But Burgess, a New Yorker who grew up in suburban Washington, hints at something even more cynical, that actually caring about an ideal, rather than being a cog in the machine, can be a road to ruin. Championed by the Women’s Project and the Public Theater, Kings is just the second play by Burgess to reach off-Broadway. Her first, Dry Powder, turned a similar, scathing eye toward Wall Street. It will be interesting to see what comes next.
Also alluring is the casting choice of Ms. Jacobs and Ms. Cash. In TV-land, both actors are currently portraying LA women on the verge, or past the verge, of a nervous breakdown. In the darkly hilarious You’re the Worst, Cash’s Gretchen is clinically depressed and an emotional mess. And in the Netflix rom-com, Love, Jacobs’ Mickey battles addictions galore. In both shows, the women strive to cast off the crazy and eek out a healthy romance. Here, they are sane and calculating. With matters of the heart hinted at but generally beside the point, the actors are called upon to direct their emotions inward. Jacobs, with limited stage experience, sometimes seems unsure what to do with her hands. Hugs are not an option, so she spends a lot of time with hands folded in front of her, or folded behind her back for variety.
Sadly, the physical staging of the production is a mess, with the decision having been made to mount the production alley-style, the audience in two sections, on either side of a narrow stage that is anchored on one end by a large revolving door. Scenes that take place at various bars, a rowhouse and a Chili’s restaurant all feel like they are happening in a hotel lobby. Lobbyists in a lobby, so be it, but director Thomas Kail (a Tony winner for Hamilton) blocks his actors into various unnatural seating arrangements and random wanderings before throwing in the towel by introducing a turntable to rotate the characters around as they dish their political spin.
Kings – By Sarah Burgess, directed by Thomas Kail.
WITH: Aya Cash (Lauren), Eisa Davis (Sydney Millsap), Zach Grenier (John McDowell) and Gillian Jacobs (Kate).
Scenic design by Anna Louizos, costume design by Paul Tazewell, lighting design by Jason Lyons, original music and sound design by Lindsay Jones; CJ LaRoche, production stage manager. The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, (212) 967-7555, www.publictheater.org. Through March 25. Running time: 100 minutes.