Playwright Sarah Burgess plumbs politics for her newest play Kings at the Public Theater. The production of this timely story of Washington, DC lobbyists and the politicians they serve just barely survives an overwhelming design — sounds disrupt, lights blind, and the set is unnecessarily twee. This is a better play than the design allows it to be.
Burgess started studying filmmaking at NYU and ended up telling stories on stage. In the past two years, the Public has mounted two of these stories. Dry Powder was plucked out of a stack of unsolicited manuscripts and staged in the spring of 2016. (All hail the literary departments that read scripts that come over the transom from new, unexpected sources.) That play tackled the world of traders, hedge funds, big-money machinations — and with a tiny cast, a fraction of the one that populated the recent Junk at Lincoln Center Theater that dealt with some of the same issues (and was hyper-designed). Dry Powder was showered with luck for its run — Hamilton director Thomas Kail; a geometric set design by Rachel Hauck; a starry cast including Claire Danes and Hank Azaria. Kail and Burgess have now re-teamed at the Public for Kings, focused on political machinations and similarly high stakes.
Political dramas require attention to language and nuanced relationships. In The Best Man (first staged in 1960, first filmed in 1964), Gore Vidal addresses warring factions in an old-school political party’s convention and the deal-making that goes on to whip votes for one candidate or another. The politics play out in smoky backrooms and right before our eyes: a past homosexual relationship threatens to bring down a promising career, discussed in hushed tones. In the 2000 film The Contender, written and directed by Rod Lurie, a senator played by Joan Allen confronts assertions about her own sexual past; her colleagues must decide whether to side with, pull away from, or confront those allegations. These stories evoke the huge impact of conventional lives lived in an outsized arena. The politics quietly resonate, power emanating from the subject not the surroundings. It’s philosophy and it’s story, not bombast.
In Kings, the setting should frame the telling of the play. Two Texas representatives and two political operatives interact over several months, with winners and losers and lessons learned. Kudos to Burgess for crafting a four-character play with three women and one man, of imagining peers for whom gender as sexual object is secondary. Kudos to Burgess for illustrating the Bechdel test with aplomb: female characters who speak with each other about business, their past and present lives with one another, and their ideas, rather than their relationships with men.
Veteran political operatives, lobbyists who move in and out of positions in Congress and in associations, provide the backbone of the action of the play. Lauren and Kate (Aya Cash and Gillian Jacobs — both elegant and smart) banter as long-term, friendly adversaries who know each other’s business, and they also know which political actors are where on which issue. We later learn they were lovers in the past as if that’s just one more demographic detail — none of the other characters even react to it. If sexual politics were determinative in The Best Man and The Contender, in the world of Kings, things have moved on to much more dangerous stuff.
While the glue of the story is the staffers, who we meet at a fundraising weekend, the pols they serve soon enough enter the picture. Newbie Sydney Millsap (taut, persistent Eisa Davis), a Gold Star widow and accountant, also attends this fundraising weekend. In banter with Kate over coffee, we learn that for Millsap, whose husband was killed in battle, politics is more of a challenge than a calling. Political interests crowd around for her good looks and solid credentials — she is new blood, after all — she appreciates Kate’s straight-talking ways. Back in DC, meanwhile, we encounter the play’s sole male character, Sen. John McDowell (charming and intense Zach Grenier), for whom Lauren once worked. He, of course, represents extended, and slightly corrupted, power.
Millsap enters politics for the experience. In the end, though, it’s inevitable that she has to run against McDowell and to test everyone’s principles. Power resettles, and the story ends somewhat as it begins, with Lauren and Kate.
The design team only partially serves this nuanced story told in conventional short scenes, moving forward in time, over the course of a tumultuous political season. Anna Louizos has crafted a runway of a set between seating areas that face each other in the LuEsther Hall, a permanent coffee service located at one end no matter where the scene takes place (hotel lobbies, restaurants, Congressional offices), and set pieces that assemble and disassemble like doll-house toys. The assembly and disassembly of the set — a three-sided arch of wood can be a bench, a table, a podium — becomes a game as we watch the stagehands do their work. It distracts rather than entrances the audience; worse, it’s punctuated by deafening electronic music by Lindsay Jones. Together, these elements ultimately fight the flow of the story. Is this tonal landscape too masculine, too abrupt for the storytelling layers here? The lighting design by Jason Lyons uses primary colors in neon strips that often reinforce the rock ‘n’ roll sound. Occasionally, though, it can serve as an effective backdrop, as in a debate scene between the political contenders.
On the page, Kings adds new shading to a theatrical musing on political power and gender. Perhaps a future production will match such fine storytelling with a less aggressive visual and aural environment.