Hayley Atwell is the one person whose stock rises in this financial dud about zombie capitalism and its race to the bottom. Sarah Burgess’s play “Dry Powder,” first seen at the Public Theater in 2016, offers a functional explainer of the way liquidity leads markets into murky waters, but, like the financiers it follows, in chasing the cash, “Dry Powder” lets human interest slide. Lacking drama, we’re left with a dry illustration of the way the world works, and Anna Ledwich’s staging can’t wring enough absurdity out of it to sharpen the play’s satirical sting.
In just shy of two hours, Burgess takes us through the ups and downs of a single deal. Aidan McArdle plays Rick, the flashy founder of a New York private equity firm, KMM Capital Management. Its business is the overhauling of businesses: “buy companies, increase their value, then exit.” Weighing up a bid for a faltering American company, Landmark Luggage — and Ledwich never plays up the silliness of the big bucks in baggage — he’s caught between the conflicting advice of his two trusted lieutenants about how to boost its fortunes.
While Seth (Tom Riley) has agreed a good price with its CEO ($491 million) by guaranteeing a strategy for growth based on customizable cases, his colleague/rival Jenny (Atwell) prescribes a course of asset-stripping and cost-cutting that will — with a quick exit strategy — guarantee KMM a greater profit. One guarantees American jobs, as Joseph Balderrama’s genial owner wishes; the other ships production to Bangladesh and targets the mass market of China’s emerging middle class.
“Dry Powder” is certainly timely. With uninvested capital (“dry powder”) at record highs, private equity’s golden age might be a gold rush. At a time of great turbulence — both digitalization and emerging markets opening new frontiers — businesses need to adapt or die, but, as Burgess shows, pandering to market value comes with a human cost. As KMM seek the capital to keep the buy-out afloat, they turn to shady investors halfway across the world. Burgess demonstrates, with admirable clarity, how both American interests and accountability fall away.
The point is that economic logic — the pursuit of maximum profit — dictates that they must. Seth’s ethical approach — sympathetic, but sentimental — is simply no match for Jenny’s unflinching, unfeeling rationality. She’s almost mechanical in her assessment of market values, a processing unit driven by profitability, and she ought to be entirely unlikable: blunt, hubristic and a disciple of Ayn Rand. Atwell’s skill is to make her almost likable — a little goofy, oddly ego-less and honest to the point of genuine integrity. Such is her faith in the rationale of the free market, she starts to seem like the sane one in a world gone mad.
In that, Jenny doesn’t live in the real world — her faith is in theory, not the world as it is. Her boss, Rick, has no such excuses and McArdle’s unsympathetic performance, blithely unconcerned by the way he’s perceived, makes clear that he’s lost touch with the world below. His talk of “real people” and “real money” show how market value has long detached itself from material value and the super-rich have lost sight of reality; a point made by the mirrored maze of Andrew D. Edwards’ set.
Trouble is, Burgess’s play does much the same. Given the only thing at stake on the stage is which wealthy financier claims bragging rights, it’s hard to care. Not only is that result squarely inevitable — Jenny’s logic trounces every obstacle put in its path — that process will leave both of them (and their bosses) largely unscathed. The men and women that stand to lose their livelihoods are pointedly — and problematically — absent. “Dry Powder” might be damning, but it’s fundamentally undramatic.