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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 20, 2018

Eisa Davis and Zach Grenier
Photo by Joan Marcus

Playwright Sarah Burgess has shown a real interest in the intersection of wealth and power. It is a theme she explored in her 2016 play Dry Powder, which focused on the realm of big business and high finance. And now, with her entertaining, if occasionally pedantic new work,Kings, opening tonight at the Public Theater, she has turned her eye to the crushing financial addiction that indelibly marks the world of politics.

The play's central character is a newbie member of Congress, Rep. Sydney Millsap (Eisa Davis), "the first woman and the first person of color" to be elected from her Texas district. Everyone she comes into contact seems to want to point this out to her (as if she doesn't realize it herself). Particularly ingratiating are two lobbyists, Lauren (Aya Cash) and Kate (Gillian Jacobs), as well as Millsap's glad-handing Texas colleague on the Senate side, John McDowell (Zach Grenier). All three are well versed in the art of vapid political flattery, and all, of course, are seeking something from her. The lobbyists want her ear, while the senator wants her to vote with her party in opposition to a bill that would hurt its contributors by closing a modest tax loophole.

It is all part of the normal day-to-day routine of mutual backscratching that is a given and an expectation. But Millsap is having none of it. She won't meet with any of the lobbyists' clients, and she won't tow the party line with respect to a bill that she supports. Indeed, she is determined to take advantage of her populist, outsider status to fight big money's incursion into politics. In office for less than a year, she already is frustrated by the inordinate amount of time she is compelled to spend attending fundraisers, eating endless meals of salmon canap├ęs, and placing scripted cold calls to potential contributors.

The Congresswoman finds it humiliating and a terrible waste of her time, and she is determined to be a voice for change. "I'll hold my seat," she tells a disbelieving Kate during one of their fruitless conversations, "because a whole lot of people want change. They want it so badly, they're willing to vote for psychopaths." The playwright is clearly drawing on today's political climate in shaping such speeches, but Eisa Davis delivers this and similar lines with such inspiring conviction, you might want to move to Texas just so you can vote for her.

Director Thomas Kail brings out strong performances from his cast, especially from Ms. Davis and Mr. Grenier as the Texas politicians. Ms. Davis, in particular, is quite convincing as the political newcomer, swept into office as part of the tide of anti-establishment sentiment and sympathy for her as a Gold Star widow. It's easy to see her nothing-to-lose stance as she speaks out against the polluting impact of money on our political system, and to feel her dismay when she realizes the other side will stop at nothing in its pursuit of power. For his part, Grenier's Senator McDowell comes off as a decent sort who has played the Inside-the-Beltway game for so long, he has forgotten whatever values that led him to seek public office in the first place.

Less well defined are Kate and Lauren, the two young and ambitious lobbyists. The come in and out of the play rather frequently, but they are mostly used as sounding boards for the other two, or to help explain to the audience how everyone has learned to game the system. Really, though, how much do we have to know about "carried interest" in order to understand Millsap's position? It is also pretty clear that Lauren and Kate have had a personal romantic history together, but this is not explored, nor does it seem relevant to the plot. The physical production also seems to have not been well thought through and is a little strange at times. Many of the scenes take place in bars or restaurants, with the tables and seating on turntables that keep the actors in motion while they drink, eat, and talk. Why this is the case is not at all clear. Nevertheless, both the playwright and the cast make the most of our fascination with the mechanism of U. S. politics so that, despite the flaws, there is plenty to keep both idealists and cynics in the audience entertained for the play's 100 intermissionless minutes.

Through April 1
The Public Theater, LuEsther Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
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