What language are these people speaking, anyway? The equity traders in Sarah Burgess’ frighteningly funny play, “Dry Powder,” converse in the private jargon of the financial industry. But it doesn’t take long to get the gist: The CEO of a private equity firm (Hank Azaria) is considering the leveraged buyout of a small American company, and his junior partners (Claire Danes and John Krasinski) are on opposing sides of the argument. In the play’s world premiere at the Public Theater, it falls to director Thomas Kail (“Hamilton”) and his diamond-cut cast to make this dry subject enthralling and horrifying.
Blue is supposed to be a restful color, but the cobalt hue set designer Rachel Hauck chose for the block furniture and back-wall windows that define the office of KMM Capital Management is as jangling as the state of everyone’s nerves. And in Jason Lyons’ lighting design, whatever isn’t blue is black.
Rick, the firm president played by Azaria with well-balanced shares of cunning, greed and anxiety, is being pounded by both the street and the press for throwing himself a lavish engagement party (with elephants!) on the day his company announces massive layoffs at USA icon ShopGreat, a recent acquisition. More alarming, investors are pulling out of the company before the dirt splashes onto them, too.
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Seth (Krasinski, a model of nice-guy earnestness) has come up with a public relations solution. Rick’s appalling business practices will soon be forgiven if KMM acquires Landmark Luggage, an all-American company in Sacramento that sources locally and employs 653 workers — but only if KMM improves and expands the business, instead of sucking it dry and selling the shell, as usual. In reassuring Jeff (Sanjit De Silva, radiating honesty), the CEO of Landmark, that KMM will respect and maintain the integrity of his firm, Seth reveals a decent code of ethics — along with a certain naivete about his boss and the line of work they’re in.
Seth’s office rival, Jenny (Danes, in a stunning portrait of a brainy ice goddess), suffers none of Seth’s ethical conflicts because she has no ethics. Crunching numbers is Jenny’s life. Like some kind of gorgeous robot in her power suit and knife-cut blond hair, she instinctively calculates the precise worth of a company — and then assesses the exact percentage points of profit her firm would realize if they bought and flipped it.
Anything else of importance to the civilized world is outside her ken. She’s genuinely baffled, for example, at Seth’s horror that she doesn’t even know the name of the analyst in her department who is in the hospital with an Adderall addiction. “I don’t understand” (delivered with a beautifully blank expression) is both her honest reaction and a sure laugh line. To her credit, Jenny does realize she’s not like everyone else. “People can’t relate to me” is her untroubled assessment of her impact on others. Danes’ cool characterization of a businesswoman with ice in her veins is harsh, but very funny.
The showdown between Jenny and Seth may seal the fate of Landmark Luggage, but it’s only the plot, not the point of this timely play, smartly directed by Kail with focus and efficiency. Rick may be the heartless overlord of this enterprise, but Seth is not the good guy, Jenny is not the bad guy, and Jeff is no saint.
As successful profiteers very well know, it’s not about right and wrong or even business ethics. It’s all about the art of the deal.