Let’s face it. American politics has rarely been dirtier, or more in-your-face outrageous, than today, with a putrid stink from the White House inundating the nation daily. There are so many infected areas to be scrubbed that politically savvy playwrights have an unprecedentedly foul field when looking for a subject over which to pour their dramatic Lysol. Just think of the non-stop political narrative dominating TV’s late-night talk shows, the incessant chatter on cable news, and the endless comic and dramatic outpourings of shows like “Veep,” “Homeland,” “House of Cards,” “Our Cartoon President,” and so forth.
|Zach Greiner, Eisa Davis. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
From among this stinking swamp of slimy subjects Sarah Burgess (Dry Powder) has chosen in her new play, Kings, to expose the corruption wrought in the American political system by the disease of lobbying. I refer, of course, to the insidious practice of highly paid individuals persuading elected representatives to receive large donations in return for supporting legislation that will benefit self-interested institutions or donors. Although, oddly, the term “campaign finance” is never spoken, its implications regarding the influence of money in determining our laws underlines much of what transpires.
|Eisa Davis, Zach Greiner. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Representative Sydney Millsap (Eisa Davis), a Gold Star widow, formerly a bigtime oil/gas accountant, having won a special election, has become the freshman congressional representative from Texas’s 24th district. As everyone keeps reminding her, she’s the first woman and person of color from there to hold the office, which makes her a rising star in what, although unnamed, is clearly the Republican Party.
As Kate (Gillian Jacobs), a young, attractive lobbyist, soon discovers to her deep frustration, when trying to get Millsap to support a questionable bill being pushed by an association of podiatrists, the new representative has very high standards. So high, in fact, she refuses to back issues she doesn’t believe in, regardless of how much money they might provide for her campaign needs. And she endures the loathsome task of fundraising only when she can bring herself up to it.
Even more contentious is her antipathy toward retaining the Carried Interest Fairness Act, with its loophole allowing hedge fund managers to avoid paying taxes. (The Act was retained in the recent tax overhaul.) I suspect that the average audience member at Kings—liberal or conservative—doesn’t have this topic, no matter its pertinence, high on the radar of their legislative concerns. Burgess, though, makes sure we know the wonky particulars of this boringly unsexy subject as she plots out Millsap’s objections.
|Gillian Jacobs, Zach Grenier, Aya Cash. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Lauren’s friend and eventual antagonist is another young, attractive lobbyist (youthful good looks must be a job requirement), Kate (Aya Cash), who found success after having served as chief of staff for Texas Senator John McDowell (Zach Grenier); he's the eighth most powerful member of Congress, and a presidential hopeful. McDowell’s an essentially decent man but he plays the game by the rules and, in contrast to Millsap’s no-strings acceptance of donations, is inclined to assist the interests of his contributors.
|Aya Cash, Gillian Jacobs. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Over the course of the hour and 40-minute, intermissionless play, Burgess shows the unbendingly ethical Millsap winning the grudging approval of Kate, who isn’t afraid to insult the congresswoman; Millsap actually respects Kate’s unflattering honesty, even after Kate says Sydney has “a messiah complex.”
The dramatist also reveals Millsap deciding that the only way she can effect change is to run for the Senate against the much-better-funded McDowell in the upcoming primary, thus allowing the candidates to square off against each other in a debate that is the play’s best scene.
|Aya Cash, Zach Grenier. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Scene designer Anna Louizos, needing to shift locales in the 12-scene script quickly, uses a minimalist, alley-style setting, with the audience in bleachers at either side of the Public’s LuEsther Hall. This allows the action to shift smoothly among a ski resort on the slopes of Vail, homes in Washington, D.C., a speaking platform, a Dallas Chili’s restaurant, a Disney resort in Orlando, and a debate stage. On one side is a multicolored wall, on the other, a doorway, although spectators at the extreme sides can see only one of these.
|Gillian Jacobs, Eisa Davis. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
A pair of revolves allows seated conversations at tables (composed from scenic units reassembled for different purposes) to be seen from all angles as the disks very slowly turn. Jason Lyons lights things nicely, using colorful elements built into the scenic units and ceiling, and the shifts are helped by Lindsay Jones’s upbeat, rhythmic music. Paul Tazewell provides stylish clothes, particularly for the women.
Thomas Kail’s (Hamilton) direction does little to enliven the production or to make Kate and Gillian more than pretty mouthpieces. He does, though, get quality performances from the diamond-sharp Davis and the gruffly crafty Greiner (so much better than in his recent outing in Describe the Night), whose scenes, especially the debate, bounce with life.
Burgess has a good ear for the things people like these might discuss; however, despite the occasional humor, the discourse is insufficiently absorbing. Her characters remain more positions than people, and, given the constraints of time and audience patience, the play never rises beyond a limited level of didacticism.
Perhaps the most significant takeaway is that lobbyists are often more knowledgeable about issues than the politicians they endeavor to influence; they, in fact, would seem to be the principal drivers of the legislation that affects our lives.
With the chaos now enveloping the highest levels of American politics and the intensity of the backroom fighting we hear about daily, Kings, regardless of its conflicts, seems patty-cake polite.
It’s hard to get excited about tax loopholes as the issue driving the conversation, or even the subject of lobbying, at a time when, as Millsap herself remarks, the American people have voted “a psychopath” (unnamed) into office. If you want to grab your audience by the throat by dramatizing lobbying, how about using the NRA as your whipping boy?
Burgess occasionally tries to lighten the mood by digressive scenes, like one about the senator’s poet son, or another at a Chili’s where Millsap offers a spirited defense of the restaurant’s fajitas as a sizzling platter of them is served. It’s about the only thing that sizzles in Kings.
Public Theater/LuEsther Hall
425 Lafayette St., NYC
Through April 1
“What Did the Folks Next to Me Think?”
I was sitting next to a young woman I’d spotted the night before at the New York Theatre Workshop. She turned out to be a theatre journalist. Her assessment of Kings was a 50.