“Aurora’s ‘Dry Powder’ makes explosive keg of high finance”
by Lily Janiak
One sign a play is special: It can get you rooting not just for a private-equity manager, but for the most ruthless of all its private-equity managers.
Don’t worry. Sarah Burgess’ “Dry Powder” won’t convert you into a soulless financier. On its Thursday, June 28, opening night at Aurora Theatre Company, one of the most inhuman lines from Jenny (Emily Jeanne Brown) drew a hiss from the audience, as if she were the mustache-twirling villain in a melodrama.
People volunteering for charity? “I don’t understand,” Jenny says, in Brown’s hilarious delivery, much as a PC might say, “Does not compute.” Worry about either optics or ethics when her boss, Rick (Aldo Billingslea), throws himself an exorbitant engagement party, complete with an elephant, at the same time that their firm causes layoffs at a nationwide chain? They’re in private equity, not PR, she says. Save face by going with a plan from her rival in the company, Seth (Jeremy Kahn), to make a risky investment in the company Jeff (Kevin Kemp) runs, thereby saving some American jobs? That’s soft. Jenny could get a few more decimal points of profit by shipping those same jobs overseas.
As loathsome as all this is, the magic of “Dry Powder” (whose title comes from a finance term for a type of asset) is to give Jenny and the cold, hard capitalism she incarnates a perverse kind of appeal. In the tradition of “Sweet Smell of Success” or “Glengarry Glen Ross,” this Bay Area premiere finds glamour in the cutthroat, a forbidden satisfaction and even morbid beauty in our essential selfishness and corruptibility. Victoria Livingston-Hall’s bespoke costumes and Tanya Orellana’s eerily ivory set both bolster that illusory allure, as does Billingslea’s unflappable cool and calm when Rick finally meets an outsider in Jeff. Rick might have shattered another phone in fury or cut to his employee’s deepest vulnerability in a previous scene, but when it’s time to perform for the world at large, he’s as imperturbable as a Buddhist monk and as slick as a Hollywood star.
Of course a venal line of work, the show says, must ultimately strip away its practitioners’ niceties and even their real compassion. Don’t you see the same core greed in yourself, it asks, not beating you over the head, but with a wink and a smile?
To make that point, Burgess’ dialogue takes a thriller’s approach, which means full immersion into analysts’ numbers and contracts’ clauses as Rick pits Jenny and Seth against each other. But Jennifer King’s flawless direction makes these minutiae hum with life, always clarifying how each successive point, counterpoint and counter-counterpoint make a unique contribution to the debate. She and her cast span the range of an actor’s tools to home in on exactly what each line needs to become the most important one spoken yet.
Brown and Kahn give Jenny and Seth’s mutual hatred a twisted kind of chemistry that borders on attraction. Refreshingly, Burgess doesn’t take the trite route of making them actually lust after each other. It’s more that, as they curse each other with Shakespearean relish, they often take a moment to chuckle in appreciation at each other’s insults at the same time that they smart from the wounds.
“Dry Powder” explodes the naive belief that we can always be good humans and good workers at the same time. In one of its best and most emblematic scenes, Seth and Jeff, over drinks at a fancy bar (whose coral and cobalt lights, by Kurt Landisman, instantly communicate Midtown bourgeois) have realized that the acquisition they dreamed up in bromance might not work out. In words, they’re holding onto friendship and good feeling. But their faces have fallen; their bodies have drifted apart. What’s come between them is the market’s invisible hand.