The Elephant in the Room

by Josh Costello, Literary Manager & Artistic Associate

In June of 2007, just as the sub-prime mortage crisis was getting underway, Stephen A. Schwarzman, the chairman and chief executive of the Blackstone Group, threw himself a 60th birthday party . Unlike the engagement party that figures in the plot of Dry Powder, there were no elephants on hand. Instead, guests including Michael Bloomberg, Barbara Walters, and Donald and Melania Trump dined on lobster and filet mignon while enjoying performances from Patti LaBelle and Rod Stewart. The fictional party in the play and the very real party of 2007 each serve to bring unwanted attention to the excesses of high finance – in Schwarzman’s case, the Wall Street Journal painted him as a villain just as his private equity company went public.
The Stephen A. Schwarzmans of the world seem to live in a different universe from the one most of us inhabit. The impenetrable jargon, the incredibly complex financial instruments, the lavish lifestyles, and the staggering amounts of money being moved around all serve to emphasize the distance between Wall Street and the rest of us. But we’ve learned -- hopefully -- that the economy connects everybody, and that the behavior of financial firms has real consequences for us all.
Those consequences can range from the near-collapse of the entire economy, forcing 9 million families out of their homes due to foreclosures from 2006 to 2014, to round after round of layoffs when piratical private equity firms buy up companies only to squeeze out every last drip of profit by selling off assets and slashing jobs. To make matters worse, the people responsible for all this suffering rarely have to face any consequences themselves. They’re protected, sometimes by government bailouts and sometimes because human suffering is seen as insignificant collateral damage in the eternal quest for profits.
In this rarified world of buyouts and sell-offs, “dry powder” refers to cash reserves, or liquidity -- the ability of a company to spend money. The term originates in the early days of guns and cannons, when gunpowder had to carefully be protected from water before a battle. A stash of dry powder gives you the ability to take action. The amount of dry powder on hand is a critical question in Sarah Burgess’s play.
An even more critical question for the playwright, however, has to do with the moral implications of capitalism as it plays out in the world of private equity. “I was fascinated by the culture of the place,” Burgess told the Washington Post. “If the question of the best man wins — if that’s such a central value, how do you reconcile that with concern for people who are going to be put in serious trouble by these actions?” She told Fortune, “I wasn’t trying to make any political or societal statement. I am interested in the tension between these two points of view, the one that says, ‘Maybe I should make a little less if it means [people] will still be employed,’ and the one that says, ‘Not my problem.’ If you really are a capitalist, where do you draw the line as far as pursuing your own self-interest?”
Last year, Stephen A. Schwarzman celebrated his 70th birthday with another lavish party. Donald Trump missed this one, though Ivanka and Jared attended. The party featured performances from Gwen Stefani and the cast of Jersey Boys, as well as trapeze artists and live camels.