Over this past weekend, I felt somewhat hit over the head with the squabbles that are most likely taking place across this country within our organizations and politics inside and out. It is clear that there is a lot going wrong within our systems, all we have to do is look towards Washington D.C. to see dysfunction and self-interest on full display. So much so that even the people we feel aligned with can cause eruptions of discourse within our shared beliefs. For example, when I hear fellow Democrats do their version of ‘monday quarterbacking’ saying ridiculous things about how it was Hillary’s responses and therefore her ‘fault’ that caused her to ‘lose’ the campaign against the #OrangeMonster, I get so freaked out. Such a simple thing to say, lay blame, feigning superiority, and walking away with a shrug. That’s far too simple of an argument as if they knew something about an election that no one can still to this day fully figure out. It’s very likely that thousands of scholarly articles will forever attempt to understand the complicated explanation that played a role, from Russian influence, collusion, gerrymandering, and full-out blind hatred, racism, white supremacy, xenophobia, homophobia, and so many others, that this list could be endless.
Much of that feeling is on display within Sarah Burgess’s Kings, The Public Theater‘s new play from the stellar playwright who brought us the much stronger and more intellectually dense Dry Powder last season. This current offering of this ‘in the know‘ play revolves around the game of money in politics; the sort of cash that lobbyists use as bait for politicians to get behind or go against legislation that would affect their clientele. And if worded correctly to the press and public in sound bites, would appear to align with the politician’s platform, while inconspicuously helping their reelection coffers grow. In Dry Powder, Burgess dug her way into the large and complex world of private equity, and the morality, or lack there of, that is bought and sold.
Much of the same type of questioning lies at the heart of Kings, when a morally solid new member of Congress arrives in Washington, fresh and ready to do battle. She tries valiantly to not bend to the lure of campaign donations, and stand up for sensible and logical thinking based on her strong belief core. She states, most confidently that she will accept their donations to her reelection campaign but will not be told how to vote or think about any legislation set before her. This is the defiant stance of Representative Sydney Millsap, played with a distinct and smart confidence in self by Eisa Davis (Public’s Julius Caesar) said with a wicked grin and a purposeful smile. She’s a gold-star widow, quickly elected into office in a special election, and “the first woman and the first person of color ever to represent your district”, as she is told numerous times. She sees no other option but to brave the swamp and do combat with these aggressive lobbyists and her fellow pushy politicians in appropriate sterile lounges that look like they belong in an airport (a dull and static scenic design by Anna Louizos, smart costumes by Paul Tazewell, simplistic lighting by Jason Lyones). She states that she will always attempt to serve her constituents to the best of her whip-smart ability. She’s by far the best thing and the most likable character in this wordy jargon-filled exploration of a system that is rigged against someone like her. We feel the need to get behind her and support her, although we also don’t see how this can turn out well in the end. The cards are too stacked against her from decades of this kind of action. To have her win, would feel like Kings is just another feel-good outlandish fairy tale, but to have her lose, would also be a too depressing and simplistic tale about what happens to high ideals and morality when money is involved with politics. It feels like a no-win for anyone involved, because that last option is one that I don’t thing I need to hear at this point in our collective history, and the first wouldn’t feel honest.
Directed with a lazy eye for movement and advancement by Thomas Kail (Hamilton, Tiny Beautiful Things), Kings doesn’t seem to offer up anything that we don’t sort of know already; that the collusion that we also need to worry about is happening every evening between elected officials and lobbyists, all over small appetizers of smoked salmon (“stop trying to make that a catch phrase“, says Regina, “fetch” is not going to happen – oh wait, wrong Mean Girl, it was lobbyist Kate). Kate, played with a smart dead pan approach by Gillian Jacobs (Pubic’s The Little Flower of East Orange, “Love“) and her fellow lobbyist, Lauren, played with a shiny coat of false smiles by a solid and impenetrable Aya Cash (PH’s The Light Years) know how this is played and do it well. They can also see from their first encounter with Millsap at a Vail fundraising weekend that she has no idea “how any of this works” and seemingly has no interest in learning to play this wicked little game. Kate, I guess, is the one we are meant to put our hopes on, as we watch her move hesitantly toward helping the rebellious congresswoman, but the conversations that happen between these two over margaritas at Chili’s (I’d explain why, but it feels too insignificant to bother with) feels as inconsequential as the whole exercise. She never really jumps forward enough to feel like anything is at risk.
Add in the most disturbingly realistic good guy/bad guy, Sen. John McDowell, played with a firecracker solidness by Zach Grenier (ATC’s Describe the Night), and what we get to watch is all that is wrong in American politics, but very little to hold our hopes up for. The high-minded new congresswoman may get a lot of social media attention for her high minded vote on a specific special interest tax loophole (one of the more interesting pieces of information delivered in this story) but the backlash that we all know will come from those negatively impacted donator, including that good ol’ boy Senator, her own political party, and those financial investors that populated her other better play, is not surprising. The ending of Kings fizzles out as quickly as the moralistic center, leaving us disheartened and hopeless that this sharp little game will never change. It’s check mate for Kings.
MCC‘s Relevance, on the other hand, is more of a draw. Playwright JC Lee (LCT’s Luce) has a lot of specifics to say, especially the matters up for discussion at the fictional American Conference for Letters and Culture, where many have gathered to debate, deliver speeches, and bestow awards and grants on two scholars. One is Theresa, the honoree of the Lifetime Achievement Award, played by the formidable Jayne Houdyshell (A Doll’s House, Part 2, The Humans) rising majestically for the part. Dr. Theresa Hanneck is a well renown and respected writer, academic, and intellectual leader within the liberal movement of feminism and the “people who have been historically left out of the conversation.” Strong minded and well spoken, Theresa has gotten very comfortable being the star attraction at such think tank gatherings, but when a young new writer and scholar by the name of Msemaji Ukeweli, played impressively by Pascale Armand (Broadway’s Eclipsed) finds a way past Theresa’s onslaught of words and ideas and grabs a little bit of the spotlight herself, feathers and egos are ruffled beyond repair.
This solid beginning by Lee is very comical and strongly staged and worded in one of the best and most electrifying moments in Relevance. That fight that erupts on stage in front of a wide streaming audience and the host, Dr. Kelly Taylor, the oddly cast Molly Camp (Broadway’s The Heiress), who is obviously out of league, is thrilling and uncomfortable for all. Taylor is desperate to hold this conference and that interview together, yet we can’t help but sit up tall with tense excitement, ready and willing to watch the old school and the new guard clash in a barrage of words and ideas starting a full on war within their shared movement right before our very eyes. It’s an exhilarating theatrical moment, one to cherish for its high minded ideas and construct.
Back in Theresa’s hotel room, designed with a shiny cold veneer by Clint Ramos (Once on This Island), with lighting by Jiyoun Chang (NYTW’s Sojourners and Her Portmanteau) and costumes by Jacob A. Climer (VT’s Kid Victory), a more intimate and personal insight is given into the working mind of this intelligent and opinionated woman as she unloads her confrontational and self-delusional demeanor onto her agent and former lover, David, played by the warm and man-bun sporting Richard Masur (Broadway’s The Lucky Guy). Theresa is not going to let this much younger version of her progressive and aggressive past self, who claims and uses a contrived past filled with privation and abuse, to hijack the conference away from her, even if it means inflicting some wounds upon herself and her position. To do so, she must utilize some weapons that sink way down below the high bar most scholarly events profess, latching her dignity to a low brow media outlet that sits uncomfortably under our collective skin (impressive projection design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew).
Director Liesl Tommy (Broadway/Public’s Eclipsed) keeps the energy of the impending war of words and ideas, ratcheting up moment to moment, almost with too much speed and urgency causing this group of pros to stumble over their own lines at certain high stress points, struggling to keep themselves on track. The result, even with the flubs, is impressive, and keeps us leaning in trying to keep track of the slew of ideas being tossed our way. These concepts, revolving around ideas of inclusion, social media’s importance, and the relevance of keeping our past heroes perched up high on their pedestals, a status that we ourselves created, is astonishing at first, but as the play gallops into battle, Lee’s words begin to lose their persuasive exactness, failing in the end to become something of value in the overall discussion that it starts.
The similarities in the take home ideals set forth in both MCC’s Relevance and the Public’s Kings leave us overwhelmed and uncooked all at the same time. Challenging ideas of old school tactics and ways of getting things done with the new order of thinking and positioning is a compelling and very relevant discussion to be having as we do battle within our own similarly minded groups and organizations. We wonder how best to deal with the situation we find ourselves, and although the moralistic center is not placed in the same exact orbit, the ideas are both somewhere floating near by each other. These two playwrights are tackling big high-minded ideas and problems that exist in our world, but both lack a solid enough structure and framework to bring a great deal of value into the conversation. The answers maybe impossible to find within a 90 or 100 minute play, the new theatrical model of story telling, and even when Ibsen attempted to create discourse around the discomfort created when the new guard attempts to push out the old, with his much longer and similarly themed The Master Builder, the solutions are never all that clear. Both plays need some refinement to elicit a more exacting conceptual conversation that will enlighten and expand the dialogue. As they both stand, the depressing reality of both make me sad for our world and the pathway forward.
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