”There is one thing about which we all agree, left, right, center: Money has corrupted our politics,” says Rep. Sydney Millsap (Eisa Davis), summing up the point and the plot of “Kings,” a new play written by Sarah Burgess (“Dry Powder”) and directed by Thomas Kail (“Hamilton”) that opens tonight at the Public Theater. The Congresswoman, a Gold Star widow newly elected as the first black woman to represent her district in Dallas, Texas, learns the bitter lesson of money and politics while fighting to resist the moneyed interests and do what’s right on a particular bill.
The moneyed interests are wholly represented on stage by two of the three other members of the cast, lobbyists Lauren and Kate (Aya Cash from ‘You’re The Worst” TV series and Gillian Jacobs from “Community.’) It is to the playwright’s credit that she does not paint these young women as evil incarnate, but as good-natured players in a game that was not of their making. This is simply the way it’s done. Similarly, the fourth character, Sen. John McDowell, is the amiable son of an oil field mechanic who has learned what it takes to advance in politics. The chairman of the Senate finance committee, popular with his
colleagues, McDowell has ambitions to be president. (There is a mixed message, though, in the casting of Zach Grenier, who has made a meal out of playing villainous or at least semi-villainous characters; he is best known for his role as divorce lawyer David Lee in The Good Wife.) Millsap is the only character of the four who can seem outright rude, as if the playwright is saying it takes an anti-social lawmaker to be guided by principles.
“Kings” feels as sophisticated and enlightening as Burgess’s maiden play, “Dry Powder,” also directed by Thomas Kail and produced at the Public Theater two years ago, which focused on greed and ambition among the players in a private equity firm. But it is also dryer than “Dry Powder,” which got mixed reviews but was a hit – though perhaps its starry cast (Clare Danes, Hank Azaria, John Krasinski) had more to do with its popularity than the subject matter.
It seems clear that the research Burgess conducted for “Dry Powder” helped guide her in the writing of “Kings,” perhaps too much so. The bill that gets Rep. Millsap in trouble with her own (unspecified) political party would tax carried interest. The play spends an inordinate amount of time explaining what carried interest is and debating the reasons why it should be taxed.
The playwright’s choice to focus on a financial issue is certainly logical: If the play is meant to talk about the influence of money, why not have it be about an issue directly involving money? One could even argue that a better-known issue affected by moneyed interests – such as gun control – would divide the audience along ideological lines, and hijack the audience’s attention from a focus on the money. (It’s as if the playwright herself is trying to persuade all theatergoers, “left, right, center” to agree with her essential argument.) Yet, the playwright’s choice to avoid issues that matter deeply to many people makes “Kings” feel more academic than urgent.
Still, for those open to a civics lesson, the play is credibly instructive in the myriad ways that money warps the political process. We see (as we have many times before) how money affects campaigns: Sydney has to spend seven hours a day making calls to potential donors. We see how moneyed interests make or break lawmakers: Sydney’s support for the carried interest tax bill causes her pro-business donors to withdraw their support, and throw it to a more pliable candidate to challenge her in the primary, a maneuver engineered with the help of Sen. McDowell, who sweetens the blow by having arranged a lucrative private sector job for Sydney. (Her combative response is to run against Sen. McDowell.) But we also see some lesser-known phenomena, such as how lobbyists don’t just try to sway votes on behalf of clients, but manufacture legislation for them. Kate lobbies Sydney on a bill she says will help solve the opioid crisis: Patients with foot pain would be required to see a podiatrist before receiving any opioid-based painkiller. Her client is the podiatry industry.
There are signs that, beneath her machinations, Kate retains some idealistic impulses, as she takes some half-hearted stabs at aiding Sydney’s quixotic quests. But it’s Sydney who draws our attention, in her willingness to be uncompromising. The low-key performance by Eisa Davis (Passing Strange, House of Cards) makes her stubbornness feel plausible, helped along by Paul Tazewell’s costumes; he dresses her mostly in no-nonsense pants-suits or western attire (plaid shirt and hunting vest).
As in “Dry Powder,” director Tommy Kail inserts flashing lights and loud pop music between each scene, as if we’re briefly visiting a disco. This feels out of place during the show, but on reflection, a disco almost fits as a metaphor for Congress, given our dysfunctional democracy – a place that drowns out conversation.
Written by Sarah Burgess
Directed by Thomas Kail
Cast: Aya Cash, Eisa Davis, Zach Grenier, and Gillian Jacobs
Scenic Design: Anna Louizos
Costume Design: Paul Tazewell
Lighting Design: Jason Lyons
Original Music & Sound Design: Lindsay Jones
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets $85 to $150 ($20 lottery, other discounts)
Kings is scheduled to run through April 1, 2018