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Dry Powder

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

John Krasinski and Claire Danes
Photo by Joan Marcus

They may wear crisp, clingy, contemporary clothing, wield smartphones the way warriors of earlier ages did longswords, and bicker about the political nuances of global finance in 2016. But make no mistake, the characters in Sarah Burgess's new play at The Public Theater, Dry Powder, are just reenacting a story and an argument as old as the human race (and therefore currency) itself: The love of money is the root of all evil. And, just as important (if not more so), it's warm-fuzzy sequel, the rejection of money is the root of all good.

If this was the only goal of Dry Powder, which has been staged to a blinding sheen by Thomas Kail (Hamilton, In the Heights) and features in its cast Hollywood heavyweights Hank Azaria, Claire Danes, and John Krasinski, well, mission accomplished. Alas, that alone is not sufficient basis for a gripping 95 minutes of theatre, especially if you're more curious about what goes on behind the scenes, and what truths underlie the press (most of it bad these days) that America's top cash-pushers already guess. You won't learn anything here, except what you already know (or were taught as a toddler and promptly forgot once the world got its hold on you).

Does that sound like fun? If so, step into KMM Capital Management's Midtown Manhattan offices and stop by the executive suite of its president, Rick (Azaria), as he ponders the fate of his private equity firm's prospective new client, the Sacramento-based Landmark Luggage. The company was brought to Rick's attention by Seth (Krasinski), who's impressed with Landmark's ethics (which involve making their products exclusively in America) and its clear-headed CEO, Jeff (Sanjit de Silva) and who insists that the buyout go according to the deal he's structured that maintains the values of everyone involved while making a tidy profit. This, he's certain, will stem the current tide of resentment over the firm, which was inspired by Rick's elaborate engagement party (an elephant was involved) on the same day major layoffs took effect at one of their recent acquisitions.

But wait! Let-them-eat-urinal-cake third partner Jenny (Claire Danes) has a better idea. Because nothing they say or do will satisfy the protesters, why not just focus on what they do best: making money? The ideal route, she froths, is to squeeze Landmark for an additional 0.3% of returns, move all its manufacturing to another country (probably Bangladesh—Jeff doesn't like the idea of it going to Mexico), and buy off the CEO Seth is positive cannot be bought. No, everyone doesn't win this way, but Jenny and Rick do, and that's all that matters, right?

Hank Azaria, Claire Danes, and John Krasinski
Photo by Joan Marcus

This is as far down as Dry Powder digs, and as compelling as its drama gets. Whom, Burgess demands to know, do you side with? The handsome, forthright, passionate Seth, who just wants to make the world a better place for himself, his wife, and his daughter? Or the Randian ice queen in the skin-tight dress who's single, hollowed out to the core (she declines Jeff's offer of a sample suitcase because she already has a better luggage set), and committed to knifing in the throat anyone she has to as long as she comes out ahead? Tough choice!

There's no reason, of course, you can't have a piece driven by an antihero, or for that matter a group of them; David Mamet made his career on writing play after play that did just that. But Mamet avoided the kind of traditional moralizing that Burgess embraces (one assumes the only reason Jenny doesn't twirl her mustache is that she's a woman) and created an entire electrifying patois that made their millions of bullet-shaped words caress your ear despite their vileness, something that Burgess has not yet managed. The endless arguments are, simply and wholly, Seth versus Jenny. Rick may occasionally lean (or, because of carefully timed events, be pushed) in one direction or another, but he and the circumstances surrounding him are malleable right until the very end. The decision he ultimately makes will not be revealed here, but does it need to be? How else could any work like this end?

Kail's ultramodern production is sharp and attractive, finding the pulse-pounding rhythms in everyday pacing, and its in-the-round configuration in the Martinson keeping the action immediate and its participants never far from your judgment. And Rachel Hauck's blue box of a Mondrian-inspired set, Clint Ramos's cream-of-the-crop costumes, and Jason Lyons's urgent lighting are potent complements. But it's all fancy, towering dressing that can't camouflage the play's inherent one-dimensionality or add depth of color to a tale that's determined to stay swathed in black and white.

As such, it's not exactly a surprise that Krasinski gives the only completely recognizable and well-rounded performance: He shows you how Seth is forever teetering between his worst and better natures (before, sigh, always landing on the latter), and injects a real dynamism into his fight for his cause. It's not at all a comic role—sorry, Office fans—but Krasinski nonetheless makes it bright, energetic, and suave. (You certainly don't have to worry about not finding virtue appealing.)

De Silva gives a more nakedly sympathetic reading of Jeff, which works well enough up until the final scenes, when he must go places we're not prepared for; it's not quite believable that this Jeff contains the levels we're forced to accept so late that he does. Rick's primary emotion in Azaria's portrayal is exhaustion, which is understandable, but does get tiring on its own terms—the question of whether Rick has been beaten down by the world around him or was hardly a go-getter in the first place would drastically change the evening's tone, but Azaria hasn't made a firm decision about which applies.

Then there's Danes. Though a gifted screen actress, she's failed to imbue Jenny with the barest smidgen of humanity—this woman is a walking mannequin who talks with just the clipped, emotionless voice you'd expect of one. She gets no help from the script on this score—Jenny, apparently intentionally, has literally no redeeming characteristic—but it's such a flat, disinterested take on the part that Jenny is impossible to take seriously as the bad guy. She's impossible to accept at all.

Not that you're really supposed to. Everything about this play pushes you to disdain Jenny and her acidic philosophies as totally as she does Seth's quasi-altruism. But if this can't or won't be any more than a mind-numbing melodrama, is it too much to ask that there at least be a villain we can hiss? Burgess, Kail, and Danes can't even give us that. Yet another reason Seth is right: Just as money can't guarantee salvation, love, or success, in Dry Powder it can't lead to so much as a basic good time.

Dry Powder
Through April 10
Public Theater - Martinson Hall, 425 Lafayette Street
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