Off Broadway Review: ‘Kings’ With Aya Cash, Gillian Jacobs

Sarah Burgess’s muckraking political drama tosses an honest politician into the Washington swamp and invites us to watch the fun.

Kings review
Joan Marcus

Representative Sydney Millsap is the kind of politician we all want to be, if we absolutely must be politicians. A Gold Star widow with the high ethical standards of an old school Texas Democrat like the sainted Ann Richards, Sydney won her seat in a special election and came to Washington determined to drain the swamp – singlehandedly, if she must.

She’s the central focus “Kings,” the new play from playwright Sarah Burgess (“Dry Powder”) and “Hamilton” director Thomas Kail, with a cast that includes buzzy TV names Gillian Jacobs (“Community,” “Love”) and Aya Cash (“You’re The Worst”). Eisa Davis, best remembered for “Passing Strange,” plays Sydney, and certainly looks the part. She’s tall, photogenic (in costumer Paul Tazewell’s sleek business suits), and bursting with the righteous You-and-Me-Against-the-World vibe that makes wary voters believe in and trust politicians like Sydney. “You’re, like, one of the most exciting new members we have,” gushes one player.

The problem with Sydney – and with the play overall – is that her ambitions are much too vague and utterly unsexy.  It’s all very well to present yourself as a passionate reformer, but without a clear-cut political agenda we can relate to, you’ll never win our vote. We’ll get on board for, say, stopping the opioid epidemic, but not for some cause of great importance to podiatrists.

Sydney’s ostensible professional enemy is a more senior Texas Senator John McDowell (Zach Grenier, to the role born), a crafty old politico who represents the collegial method of getting things done in Congress – by wheeling and dealing. Grenier exudes wisdom and power as the savvy congressman who tries to get through to his naïve younger colleague, but the issue of corrupt equity-fund managers is a snoozer, and highly unlikely to inspire anyone to storm the barricades.

What does come across as a valid issue is Sydney’s abject distaste for courting campaign donors, a chore she undertakes only squeamishly. Yes, it’s a chore; and yes, it can be humiliating. But even a neophyte would seemingly be savvy enough to know how our beloved system works – if only to find a way to outwit it.

Sydney is on firmer ground when facing down Kate, an unscrupulous lobbyist (“Queen of the medical associations”) played with teeth bared by Jacobs, and Lauren, a Party fund-raiser, played in slick style by Cash, who is tasked with teaching the newbie the ropes.  Unlike that old fox, Senator McDowell, these two hustlers have no — zero — subtlety whatsoever. Kate, for example, is deadly serious about her lobbying efforts on behalf of podiatrists, but neither she nor Lauren offer Sydney any concrete survival tips. And really, who can blame them, when Sydney doesn’t even show up for her own fund-raising party.

Kail, normally a savvy director, isn’t much help with the unwieldy material. But to be fair, fancy staging tricks are almost impossible on a raised stage with audience on both sides. And it’s hard to find the drama in a play that’s heavy with talk but light on thought. Although the clashing ethical codes of traditional politicians and young barnburners seems an incendiary topic, Burgess misses her chance to strike the match.

Off Broadway Review: ‘Kings’ With Aya Cash, Gillian Jacobs

Public Theater / LuEsther Hall; 213 seats; $65 top. Opened Feb. 20, 2018. Reviewed Feb. 18. Running time: ONE HOUR, 40 MIN.

  • Production: A Public Theater presentation of a play in one act by Sarah Burgess.
  • Crew: Directed by Thomas Kail. Sets, Anna Louizos; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Jason Lyons; original music & sound, Lindsay Jones; production stage manager, CJ La Roche.
  • Cast: Aya Cash, Eisa Davis, Zach Grenier, Gillian Jacobs, Rachel Leslie.