BWW Review: Wall Street Takes Center Stage at Live Theatre Workshop – Broadway World

Posted: October 26, 2021 at 5:10 pm

Live Theatre Workshop launches the weekend with a new production of DRY POWDER, a brisk and damming commentary on the world of high finance and leveraged buyouts. It's a crash course, if you will, on the savage underbelly of predatory capitalism.

Playwright Sarah Burgess writes an urgent corporate drama propelled by a high-octane dialogue, at once pedantic and crude. Don't expect much in the way of catharsis, given Ms. Burgess's disposition to thrash out a bleak American economy that sees little hope for the future of the average American worker.

It's not all doom and gloom. There's ample humor to go around -- that snarky and cutting sort apropos of the fierce wheeling and dealing on Wall Street.

In DRY POWDER (uninvested capital), Ms. Burgess acknowledges income inequality from the vantage point of elite power brokers, the oft-maligned "one percenters" driving the nation's economic bus to a cliff's edge. As stagnant wages and unemployment take front and center in our political discourse, the playwright amplifies the reality by exposing the sinister forces behind the flailing American manufacturing industry and a crumbling labor market.

The play opens with Rick, the CEO of a New York private equity firm (KMM Capital Management), reeling from a vicious public-relations fallout caused by his lavish engagement party (with elephants, no less) while protesters take to the streets to decry his recent acquisition of a grocery chain that forced hundreds of employees out of work. The New York Times is on top of every development, and his firm's investors are growing uneasy. To say the least, his image has taken a huge hit.

Enter Seth and Jenny, two high-powered assistants with opposing views on practically every business prospect. The former suggests a PR makeover with a proposal to buy out Landmark Luggage, an iconic all-American company with money woes. Seth is well-acquainted with Jeff, Landmark's CEO, and has secured his verbal commitment to sell the company for a bargain price of $491 million. Very attractive, Rick admits; keep the manufacturing jobs in Sacramento and help the company regain its profitability and voila -- Rick's reputation is restored and KMM is a bigger star than ever.

Jenny, on the other hand, sees little value in maudlin attempts at public relations and favors a more disciplined approach that leads to real and measurable profit: Buy Landmark Luggage, outsource production offshore, and target China's growing middle class. She's unconcerned about internal job losses as she aims for the singular goal of making the highest profit possible, ethics be damned. She thinks feelings are unreliable and assures Rick the opprobrium he's worried about is bound to wash over, as public opinion tends to do. Jenny abhors altruism and would do Ayn Rand proud.

Seth and Jenny drive much of the play's trajectory as they compete for Rick's decision and, ultimately, for the company's long-term success. The last piece of this high-strung ensemble is Jeff, the only one (or so it seems) to show a modicum of goodwill as he tries desperately to ensure a contractual clause to keep luggage production in California, keeping his employees on the job. But there lies the rub; Rick is torn between Seth's advice to keep the optics respectable and Jenny's mathematical alternative to slim down and force workers to deal with an honest reality.

With due respect, the rest of the narrative shall remain undisclosed as it needs to be seen to be appreciated. Suffice it to say that Ms. Burgess ought to be glad to have her play well represented by LTW's solid cast. These are fine actors who get the stakes -- that is, life in the top tier is survival of the most ruthless. Actors must find just enough space to dabble in humanity, perfunctory it may be, then set it aside long enough to serve and fulfill one's selfish ambition. It's true even for Jeff, who faces the eventual choice between personal solvency and keeping his workers employed.

Cliff Madison's Rick is feisty and given to fits of rage. He is actually quite lovable when showing a small sign of regard for public good, even though we know better. He claims to be a philanthropist by erecting a school in Bali; in the end, it's a superficial case of noblesse oblige and a desire to be validated in spite of his worst tendencies. Stephen Frankenfeld is an empathetic Seth, Mr. Nice Guy gone slick and savvy. He does elicit our empathy as he struggles to do the right thing for his friend Jeff, but again -- too much money is at stake and he can't afford to disobey his superior. And when he comes around to acknowledge his guilt, he's a little too late. Jeff is played with genuine sensitivity by Tyler Gastelum. We root for him to get what he wants and can't blame him in the end when he fails to meet our expectations. Jeff is Ms. Burgess's liberal foil in a world dominated by allegedly conservative oligarchs.

Lori Hunt's Jenny takes the cake. In a somewhat Brechtian twist, the perceived villain is a victor, as it were, and breaks the fourth wall to address the audience. Jenny appears to have no weakness, which makes for bad drama, and yet Lori Hunt treats her with searing honesty that we just might take her side in spite of our better instincts.

LTW's main stage, usually treated as an arena space, adapts to a more fitting geometrical scenic design with a translucent grid upstage, allowing for a thrust perspective that works rather well. Minimal, movable set pieces are employed effectively to suggest scene changes. Perhaps a simple adherence to the playwright's prescription, but director Sam Rush ought to be commended just the same. His direction paints a nuanced texture that allows actors to drive the pace and shape their appropriate arc. These characters are the last people I'd want to hang out with, but they're a rich source for psychological inquiry, not to mention entertaining as hell to watch.

Photo Credit: Ryan Fagan

DRY POWDER continues its run Friday through Saturday at 7:30 PM and Sunday at 3 PM through November 20, 2021. For tickets, call Live Theatre Workshop at 520-327-4242 or visit: https://www.livetheatreworkshop.org/.

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BWW Review: Wall Street Takes Center Stage at Live Theatre Workshop - Broadway World

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