The Public Theater, LuEsther Hall
425 Lafayette St. by Astor Pl.
Tuesday - Sunday through April 1, $75 - $150
In the spring of 2016, playwright Sarah Burgess and director Thomas Kail teamed up at the Public Theater on Dry Powder, Burgess’s first professionally produced work, managing to make a story about leverage buyouts and dividend recaps tense and involving. Unfortunately, lightning doesn’t strike twice in their Public follow-up, Kings, a surprisingly dry tale of Washington lobbyists. Eisa Davis stars as Rep. Sydney Millsap, a Dallas single mother and former oil and gas company accountant elected to Congress without any political experience. She is quickly set upon by a pair of vulturous thirtysomething lobbyists, Lauren (Aya Cash) and Kate (Gillian Jacobs), both of whom believe they are more important to the system than Millsap is. Kate is pushing absurd legislation for podiatrists, while Lauren, who is married to the chair of the SEC, is hyping a tax-code bill on carried interest (snooze). Neither is very happy to receive short shrift from Millsap. “Good luck getting reelected if you’re going to insult every lobbyist you come into contact with,” Kate tells her. “Maybe you should change careers,” Lauren suggests to Millsap. When Millsap’s party, led by the powerful Sen. McDowell (Zach Grenier), is unhappy with her vote on the tax bill, the senator himself, who has eyes on the White House, offers Millsap a lucrative deal if she decides not to run again, but instead she makes a decision that is nearly as absurd as the legislation the podiatrists want.
Kings is a slow-moving retread of Dry Powder, mixed with a little Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, lending nothing new on the critical issue of lobbyists and campaign financing. Even Kail’s (Hamilton, Tiny Beautiful Things) direction mimics that of his previous collaboration with Burgess, with furniture being rearranged into chairs and tables and colored lights flashing with loud music in between scenes. For no apparent reason, the audience sits on two sides of Anna Louizos’s set, facing each other, with the action taking place in the middle. Similarly, when Millsap meets other characters at her favorite restaurant, Chili’s, their table revolves. Grenier (Talk Radio, Describe the Night) is rock-solid as McDowell, a proud man who long ago decided to play the game in order to gain power, and Davis (Passing Strange, Julius Caesar) is fresh and exciting as Millsap, a woman who believes she can really make a difference (and she looks sharp in Paul Tazewell’s costumes), but Cash (You’re the Worst, The Other Place) and Jacobs (Don’t Think Twice, Community) are annoying as the lobbyists; their characters are not supposed to be likable, and their shrill performances ensure that. The American electoral system is in chaos, and lobbyists have a lot to do with that, but Kings fails to get at the heart of the situation, offering only clichéd platitudes, like a politician’s empty campaign promises.