The Public Theater

Gillian Jacobs, Aya Cash, and Zach Grenier costar in this smart Public Theater play

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February 20, 2018 at 10:00 PM EST
We gave it a B+

It would be reductive to characterize Kings, the new play from Sarah Burgess (Dry Powder), as “timely.” Kings is set in the disarmingly corrupt world of contemporary politics, casting an appropriately critical eye on the revolving door between lobbying and public service. It makes not-so-subtle references to Donald Trump’s election as president, interrogates the country’s populist wave, and traces the rise of a grassroots candidate phenomenon. The play’s sarcastic edge can veer into the cynical, near-fatalistic territory that’s become standard in 2018. Safe to say, “timely” is not Kings’ goal — it’s Kings’ baseline.

Thousands of players and billions of dollars fuel the special interests space, and yet Kings narrows its focus to a mere quartet of characters. There are two lobbyists here, in financial rep Lauren (You’re the Worst’s Aya Cash) and medical rep Kate (Love’s Gillian Jacobs), as well as two politicians, namely veteran U.S. Senator John McDowell (The Good Wife’s Zach Grenier) and newly elected Congresswoman Sydney Millsap (House of Cards’ Eisa Davis). The play orbits around the latter character; her adamant refusal to be influenced by donor money rocks Washington to its core, and particularly spins Lauren, Kate, and Senator McDowell in surprising directions.

Burgess’ interests are wide-ranging, but she’s most sensitive to the moral landscape of our current political system — the way a young lobbyist justifies her job of preserving the interests of powerful men, or how a long-serving senator swats away bills that promise sweeping change in the name of “practicality.” These two seemingly opposing forces — the lobbyist and the politician — continually converge. The drama’s catalyst arrives when Millsap rebuffs the efforts of both Kate (who pushes an obscure bill that’d boost her podiatrist clients) and Lauren. The latter’s fighting a tax code bill that would eliminate the wealthy-favoring carried interest loophole — an anti-Wall Street cause that Millsap, the first black woman elected in her (presumably red) Texas district, supports. As she likes to remind, she was elected by the people, for the people.

As she continues to skirt playing the favors game, Millsap is eventually boxed in by “the party”; when she learns she’s going to be primaried, she decides to fight back and run against McDowell. (Their party is never specified.) Millsap gets Kate in her corner after challenging her moral compass, essentially setting up a two-on-two showdown. We get snippets of the ensuing campaign: Millsap’s the outsider, McDowell the establishment. (Ring a bell?) The writing here is wonky and heavy-handed. Lengthy discussions about policy might hew toward D.C. realism, but on the stage — and even in the hands of the great Thomas Kail (Hamilton), the production’s director — they’re didactic. The lobbying side of the drama, specifically, gets lost in a sea of talking points. Lauren is defined only by what she’s done — serve McDowell as his chief of staff, then move into lobbying where she has an intrinsic advantage — and Kate only by her ethical conundrum. Their existence feels restrictive, functional.

The Public Theater

But then there’s Millsap: a dynamic presence whose fresh ideas and no-nonsense approach to governing excites and elevates the production. Burgess’ portrait is exhilarating; she conceives Millsap with a gritty purity, a potential for triumph that might be realized were the congresswoman not operating in such a craven system. Millsap’s meteoric rise — fueled by splashy, viral-ready speeches — at times resembles that of Kamala Harris or Bernie Sanders, the birth of a folk hero speaking her constituents’ language. And her noble but hard fall illustrates the limitations of her defiant approach: Burgess’ vital trick is the way she holds McDowell in an empathetic light, drawing contrasts between him and Millsap in convincing and illuminating ways.

Kings may lure TV fans, what with the presence of small-screen favorites Cash and Jacobs. Yet anyone who saw what Cash proved capable of on You’re the Worst will see she’s not exactly challenged here, and Jacobs, great as she’s been on Community and Love, unfortunately stumbles in her first stage role in a decade, racing through lines as if she’s just getting through them. It’s the less starry half — Grenier and, especially, Davis — that does memorable work. Davis, an Obie-winning actress and Pulitzer-shortlisted playwright, is revelatory as Millsap; she gives her such life in her dry humor, her slightly stilted speech patterns, her weary desire to just do her job without the distractions. Further, Burgess makes the character distinctive, giving Davis surprising shades to play. (We learn, among other things, that Millsap really loves Chili’s fajitas and is really bad at coming up with campaign catchphrases.)

It’s mesmerizing the way Kings, at its best, actually draws you into the campaign — giving you a hero to root for, a villain to lambaste, a slogan to memorize — before zooming out, imbuing the action with the kind of perspective and emotion that only fiction can provide. The play’s primary setpiece is the big McDowell-Millsap debate, and it’s constructed so thoroughly it blurs the line between reality and make-believe. At first glance, it’s a treat to watch these two actors go toe-to-toe. By the scene’s conclusion, it’s delicious to see Millsap, our hero, take down McDowell, our villain. But in reflection, after the dust settles, the feeling is much more muted. This is drama invigorated by the pessimism permeating today’s conversations — even though the story Burgess tells is depressingly familiar. Consider Kings’ trajectory: Energetic politician is elected as an outsider, vows to shake things up and fight corruption, starts a movement, and is ultimately defeated by more powerful forces. That’s not timely; it’s a tale as old as time. B+

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