The world of high finance is equal parts confounding, infuriating, and downright terrifying. Most Americans look at Wall Street's slick, greedy players and are resigned to the fact that it's filled with money-hungry vultures, the kind of people who won't settle for just one yacht. They're sucking the economy dry, we think, while the rest of us waste away into oblivion.
If you're looking for the softer side of the architects of American income inequality, Dry Powder can't help you. Never has a play captured the cold-stone investors responsible for the collapse of American manufacturing with such sardonic humor and stark reality than Sarah Burgess' hit show, which will premiere at GableStage at the Biltmore this Saturday.
The play, which debuted off-Broadway in March 2016, was so meticulously researched by Burgess that anyone unfamiliar with the inner workings of those deeply involved in the private equity sector, its arcane machinations, and impenetrable jargon will feel like they're a part of that world — or at least like they're a fly on the wall of a boardroom meeting and watching the madness unfurl.
"The language of the script is the exact kind of language people in that world would use," GableStage producing artistic director Joseph Adler says. "But it's so brilliantly written that the audience will absolutely be able to follow it. It's funny as hell, it's fast-paced, and it has a great deal to say about not just what's happening in that world and the many consequences to ours, but the kind of people who are responsible for it."
The play's title is a finance term that refers to the remaining capital in a private equity fund — or, in layman's terms, spendable cash. The story revolves around Rick, the founder of a New York-based private equity firm called KMM Capital, and the PR fallout it's suffering. Turns out, in typical myopic high-finance-person fashion, Rick threw himself a lavish engagement party, complete with live elephants, the same week KMM Capital announced massive layoffs at a supermarket the firm owns. His partner, Seth, who is Dry Powder's sort of moral compass, comes up with a plan to have the firm buy out a luggage company that caters to middle-class travelers. The plan would not only yield money, Seth says, but also create American jobs for Americans. It's a win-win, according to Seth. Jenny, meanwhile, is the face of the one percent — a take-no-shit, cold-as-a-stone killer who cares not for PR miscues. This is about money, Jenny says, and how to make more of it. Anything and everything beyond that is a waste of time. The crux of Burgess' play revolves around the three principal characters duking out the ethics of it all, while a growing Occupy Wall Street-style mob protests KMM Capital.
Seth sees his plan as a no-brainer. It saves face while making money. Jenny, ever the shark, however, wants to go for the jugular and squeeze every last dime from the company, consequences be damned.
"The draw to this story is that it gives you an inside view of the kind of people who live and breathe this business and shows us their point of view," Adler says. "But it tells it in a viciously funny, rapacious manner. It gives you insight into what these people are truly concerned with, which is the bottom line: making money."
It's rare that a work from such a relatively unknown playwright gets picked up and produced so quickly. But when the artistic director of New York's Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, read the play last year, he knew it had to be produced immediately.
"Eustis, who probably reads around 500 plays a year, saw this play and had to put it on right away," Adler says. "And as soon as I got the rights to it, I knew I wanted to do it this season. It's a play that needs to be seen now, especially with what you see every day in the news."
Burgess dove deep into her research for Dry Powder, not only interviewing people in and around high finance in New York but also reading up on firms similar to her fictitious KMM Capital, such as Blackstone Group, whose CEO, Stephen Schwarzman, threw himself a $3 million birthday party in 2007 and then suffered the ensuing public backlash. But Burgess also interviewed the lesser players in the industry to get a glimpse of how they feel about the big bosses living with such devil-may-care attitudes while the world burns. The short answer, according to Burgess' research, is there's a lot of natural resentment out there, even from those within the industry.
The research paid off, and Eustis was able to gather an all-star cast for Dry Powder's original Public Theater run, with Hank Azaria playing the part of Rick, John Krasinski playing Seth, and Claire Danes taking on the role of Jenny.
GableStage has been known to put on special performances for those who can relate most to the story. It's important to Adler that those closest to the subject matter of any given play get a sneak preview, followed by a Q&A session with himself and the cast. For Dry Powder, the GableStage cast will put on a performance the Thursday before opening night just for employees of the Miami-based equity firm Evensky & Katz/Foldes Financial. It's a way for Adler and company to not only present the play to folks who know it best, but also get a better understanding of any underlying messages the play might have. GableStage has also planned a special benefit performance Friday for the Florida International University theater department.
"It can't be overstated how this play reflects the attitudes and methods of this particular class of people," Adler says. "Its telling is so honest. It's important to show it to as many people as we can, from either side of the fence."
As with most plays, Dry Powder and its themes lean very left. It's a sort of straw-man play, set up to get people riled up and thinking indignant thoughts about the characters onstage. It is very much designed to stir anger toward the seemingly unyielding indifference displayed by one-percenters. But it's also smart enough to not be overtly preachy, Adler promises.
"The bottom line here is that it's important for people to see this play," he says. "People very much need to see it now more than ever. But besides the current-events angle and the comedy and the inside look at that world, it's damn good theater."
8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday from March 25 through April 23 at GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables; 305-445-1119; gablestage.org. Tickets cost $60.
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