Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Dry Powder
Aurora Theatre Company
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's reviews of School of Rock and Soft Power

Jeremy Kahn, Emily Jeanne Brown,
and Aldo Billingslea

Photo by David Allen
Earlier this season, Aurora Theatre Company staged a marvelous production of Marco Ramirez's The Royale, a thrilling drama about race in America, set against the backdrop of a boxing match that would determine when the world would see its first black heavyweight champion.

No less thrilling (perhaps even 50% more thrilling) is the dust-up between three heavyweights in the world of finance, and Sarah Burgess's remarkable play, Dry Powder, gives us a ringside view of how a billionaire founder of a private equity firm and two of his junior partners duke it out over whether to buy out a struggling U.S. luggage manufacturer and—if they do—how much to pay for it and how to use its assets to deliver an acceptable return on their clients' investment.

I can sense what you are thinking, but put those worries to rest: Dry Powder is anything but.

Seth (Jeremy Kahn) has negotiated a price for the family-owned business, but only after months of building a relationship between himself and the company's CEO. He has a vision for the company that he sells like he's a contestant on "Shark Tank." It will reinvigorate the company to thrive in the digital economy and keep jobs in America and return almost three-to-one on their investment. Who could argue with that?

Jenny (Emily Jeanne Brown), that's who. Jenny is relentlessly focused on one thing: maximum efficiency. She is allergic to wasting time and is not satisfied unless she wrings every last hundredth of a percent of return on the company's capital. She has no friends (and seemingly no desire or need for them), no personal life, no interest in culture, and no respect for people who went to "second tier" Ivies like Yale, as Seth did. (Jenny is a Harvard Business alum.) She mocks, relentlessly, Seth's humanistic tendencies: "How do I always forget you went to a Montessori school?" "Are you giving a TED Talk?"

But Seth is no milquetoast, willing to go to bat for what he thinks is right. He's also ready to give as good as he gets, regularly mocking Jenny for her cluelessness in anything besides financial instruments and game theory. When she teases him after a particularly high-minded comment he made, she claims he's her favorite poet, and Toni Morrison will have to be satisfied with second. Seth deftly dulls her barb with a simple "Toni Morrison is a novelist."

Like a boxing referee who occasionally lashes out with a blow or two himself, billionaire bossman Rick (Aldo Billingslea) watches (except when he's dealing with a PR problem that could deplete the company's "dry powder," its investable capital) Seth and Jenny go at each other. He probes with questions that illustrate part of the reason he's a billionaire: this is a guy who can take in the big picture yet not lose sight of the details.

It would be easy to say Seth's the idealistic good guy and Jenny (and Rick) are greed-is-good, money-grubbing robber barons, but Burgess doesn't make it that easy. Since all three have a fiduciary duty to their investors to maximize returns, and since Jenny's plan to offshore production and expand into Asian markets will return a .3 percent higher ROI, wouldn't they be shirking that duty not to pursue the maximum possible return? Regardless of the assurances Seth made to Jeff (Kevin Kemp), the CEO of Landmark Luggage, that everyone could keep their jobs and more would be added?

The actors generally acquit themselves well with Burgess's often dense (yet still compelling) text, though, especially for Kahn and Brown, it feels like there is more depth in the characters that the actors have yet discovered. Billingslea exhibits a swaggering bluster tempered by powerful silences that clearly place him as a man at the top of his pecking order.

Tanya Orellana has created a set that befits an organization focused on the bottom line. It is pared down to a spare near-minimum: three chrome chairs with beige leather upholstery and two tables (one low, one high), all in a clean, mid-century style. Simple rearrangement of these elements turn the space into an office, a waiting area, an airplane, and a bar. Everything is rectilinear, and it is almost as spare as the confines of a boxing ring.

Director Jennifer King likewise keeps the blocking and pace of her actors simple and straightforward—there is no excess movement. Every motion her actors make aligns with the action and helps to reveal the characters' intentions and goals.

Dry Powder has a timeliness that can be chilling. At one point, when Jenny is defending her plan to move manufacturing to a developing country in Asia, she coolly observes that China can support a vibrant middle class in a way that America no longer can, which elicited sighs of resigned recognition in the audience at the Aurora Theatre.

Dry Powder, through July 22, 2018, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., Thursday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $33-$65. Tickets and additional information are available at or by calling 510-843-4822.

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