‘Dry Powder’ is a humorous, untapped peek into the world of high finance

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On Thursday, Sarah Burgess’ “Dry Powder” opened at Aurora Theatre Company and dipped a mostly white, mostly older-aged audience into a fishbowl look of a Manhattan private equity firm struggling with all the modern toils of bad public relations, leveraged buyouts and office politics. The play is a parodic depiction of the cutthroat, phone-smashing, smarty-pants high finance world that hits a bit closer to home than expected and is all the funnier and more unsettling because of it.

“Dry Powder” originally debuted in early 2016 at the Public Theater, starring Claire Danes, John Krasinski, Hank Azaria and Sanjit De Silva, and it was directed by Thomas Kail. Two years later, Jennifer King directs Aldo Billingslea (Rick), Emily Brown (Jenny), Jeremy Kahn (Seth) and Kevin Kemp (Jeff). And two years later, the stock market has hit an all-time high while huge shifts in the White House and tense bipartisan politics put “Dry Powder” in a starkly different contemporary context that is worth noting. The play sits differently now than it would have pre-Trump, and the current context gives the production an added layer of relevance that, purposely or not, pushes what might have been a comedy drama into occasionally overacted, highly satirical territory.

The play is as fast-paced and energy-sucking as a young playwright would imagine a Wall Street skyscraper job to be. Extra-loud dialogue is the main conduit for almost all interactions between Rick, Jenny and Seth, the firm’s partners. Despite a consistent jet of private equity jargon, the audience kept up and laughed, because for all its finance seriousness, “Dry Powder” is sharply funny. It hits all the highs and lows that come with a grating, jab-style humor that sometimes veers into immature hair-splitting.

It’s surprising, then, to see that the funniest moments are in the rare quieter spots of the play, in which Jenny and Seth are giving each other death stares and coyly pushing each other’s buttons without saying anything, or when Seth tells Jenny that she’s alone; in the moment of silence leading up to the punchline, there’s a glint in Brown’s eye that showcases Jenny’s vulnerability.  

The insularities within Burgess’ script create limited opportunities for any of the actors in the production to give their characters real, complexly human qualities. This enhances the hopefully deliberate caricaturization in a play whose sibling-quibbling dialogue might be mistaken for an exchange in a cushy sitcom (such as “How I Met Your Mother” or “Friends”).

Then, there’s Jenny, the only woman onstage and arguably the star of the show because of it. Depending on how the coin flips, Jenny is a finance whiz, a cold-hearted bitch goddess in a high-stakes world or a confident and ambitious woman successfully navigating her way up a male-dominated industry. These are just a few choices for Jenny that Brown capitalizes on, making her performance the most versatile in the show.

Kahn’s performance of Seth is diametrically opposite to Jenny. He’s the sports dude with childish tendencies, the all-American businessman who is against an offshoring manufacturing plan for the luggage company the firm is going to buy. Arguments about keeping American jobs in America hit a sour note when similar ideas were used by Donald Trump during his presidential campaign. These are the moments that totter between theater and real world and evoke a vague but necessary discomfort past the laughs.

Another point, which is perhaps a committed attempt at diversity, is that the big boss Rick is played by Billingslea, a Black actor. This is a commendable gesture at representation onstage, with the only hitch being that the characters are written with such crude character development that they serve their stereotypes without any of the big discussions surrounding the racial landscapes of the predominantly white finance world. This is not that sort of play, and still, Billingslea’s presence onstage is refreshing and filled with a man-centric aggression that further exacerbates the parodic tones of the production.

“Dry Powder” is funny and ruthlessly exposing in ways that Burgess, King and all the actors onstage might not even be aware of themselves, and that’s what gives this production an extra kick of charm. It’s meaningful in its lack of nuance. The play can be a starting point for more deep thinking surrounding the inherently complex but dramatically prodded-at discussions onstage, or it can just be a comic peek into the theatrics of high finance, and that’s OK, too.

“Dry Powder” runs through July 22 at Aurora Theatre Company.

Contact Alice Dai at [email protected].

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