‘Dry Powder’ in Berkeley gets at what is truly evil in our economy

by Sam Hurwitt

It’s a cycle we’ve come to know all too well: vulture capital firms buy up businesses only to slash them down well beyond the bare essentials and bleed them dry for short-term profit, then sell them off or strip them for parts when they have no more to give.

That’s the world of “Dry Powder,” the play by Sarah Burgess now playing at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre in its Bay Area premiere. The play was a big hit in its star-studded world premiere at New York’s Public Theater in 2016 (the cast included Claire Danes, John Krasinski and Hank Azaria), which was also the playwright’s debut production.

The dark satire takes a slick look at Machiavellian deliberations within a private equity firm plagued by protests after it forced massive layoffs at a company the same week its founder and president threw himself an opulent engagement party involving a hired elephant. Now considering a buyout of a luggage company, the firm has to decide whether to make a good faith investment in growth for mutual benefit or gut it for maximum profit.

Aldo Billingslea is mercurial and impatient as firm president Rick, who likes to let his two directors battle it out for what course to take. And battle they do, endlessly undercutting each other with vicious personal attacks that nobody there thinks are in any way unprofessional. After all, Rick’s pretty quick with the put-downs himself with brutal frankness.

Emily Jeanne Brown’s Jenny is cold-bloodedly ruthless and quite possibly sociopathic in always suggesting (and relentlessly pushing) the most merciless and immediately profitable course. Her “I don’t understand” when someone mentions doing volunteer work is all the funnier because she’s not at all joking. Jeremy Kahn’s Seth is a seemingly earnest people person who sets up deals by befriending people and gets thoroughly absorbed in his good-cop role. Rick seems to have specifically hired them to be the angel and devil on his shoulders.

There’s occasionally a hit of camaraderie, or at least collegiality, between them, as if it’s all a kind of game, but at the same time all the jockeying for power is a life-or-death struggle, and not just for them. As suitcase CEO Jeff, the unwitting pawn in this game, amiable Kevin Kemp serves as a periodic reminder that they’re playing with people’s lives.

It’s a sharp script, brought to vigorous life in director Jennifer King’s fast-paced staging. At first the financial jargon feels like a deluge, but once the game is in motion it doesn’t let up.

Tanya Orellana’s sleek set of a nearly bare meeting room with everything white or off-white works beautifully with Kurt Landisman’s colorful lighting to evoke very different locations and moods. Costume designer Victoria Livingston-Hall’s sharp business attire tells us at a glance that we’re dealing with people accustomed to moving large sums of money around.

The constant sniping does get wearying, not because it’s repetitive — Burgess manages to keep the barbs crisp and clever — but just on a basic human level. These are not people anyone would want to spend a whole lot of time around. And in a way that’s the point. In a play that’s really about the question of how people keep their humanity in an inhuman line of work, it may very well be that the answer is that they don’t.