Sarah Burgess’ new play about private-equity profiteers is a theatrical heir to David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” for the Occupy Wall Street generation.
The set is crooked.
The tables, chairs and austere metal-laced backdrop are all parallelograms, not a square corner anywhere — a fitting visual metaphor by designer Matthew Smucker for “Dry Powder,” Sarah Burgess’ 2016 play about sharky finance capitalists who make money off other people’s vulnerabilities.
And, as the plot thickens, they start to profiteer off each other.
Through April 15, Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle; $16-$59 (206-443-2222 or seattlerep.org).
Directed by Marya Sea Kaminski, “Dry Powder” could be described as an heir to “Glengarry Glen Ross,” David Mamet’s 1984 play about the cutthroat world of real estate, which was adapted into a 1992 film (that features a legendary speech by Alec Baldwin). Both “Powder” and “Glengarry” revolve around a putrid axis of power, greed and intra-office politics.
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Most of the action in “Powder” takes place in a wolves-on-Wall-Street-style office where three private-equity pirates squabble over how to handle their proposed buyout of a luggage company from a cool-and-easy California boss. Jenny (Hana Lass) is the merciless hunter, an aggressive woman who’s had to snarl and slice her way into the boys club of finance, and wants to lay off most of the luggage company’s staff. Seth (MJ Sieber) is the softy who wants to invest in the company and make it grow. Rick (Shawn Belyea) is the boss-cum-dad who encourages his two protégés to debate their divergent visions, but shouts “That’s enough!” when the fight gets too heated.
Rick is also worried about his company’s image after newspaper reports of his lavish engagement party, which involved a rented elephant. Jenny can’t understand why Rick would care. “Who takes The New York Times seriously?” she asks with teenage exasperation. “The Earth. The entire Earth,” Rick counters with an equally exasperated sigh. “Do we work in public relations?” Jenny asks. “Because I’m starting to feel like I accidentally work in public relations.”
All of the performances — plus the set, and Matt Starritt’s sound design, which includes an aural backdrop of Occupy Wall Street-style protest chants — are gorgeously sharp. Lass is particularly good as the ice-cold predator; so is Richard Nguyen Sloniker as the California luggage-company executive. Is he a surfer-hippie in a suit? Is he another wolf playing the financiers for chumps? Sloniker’s performance is wily enough to keep his character’s true motives obscured until the end.
The problem is, you can probably guess the end already. Like Mamet, Burgess uses clipped, snippy business exchanges to give us a peek into her characters’ often closely guarded inner lives.
But while Mamet tries to wriggle beneath the skin of his meaner characters (and often fails, though “Glengarry” does the trick), by the time the curtain falls on “Dry Powder,” we get a sense that Burgess loathes most of hers.
That lack of empathy for her own monsters — and make no mistake, they are monsters — cuts some guts out of her story. The characters we meet in the first scene are, for the most part, exactly the same people we say goodbye to at the end. Nobody has a real revelation; nobody changes.
Despite the deficiencies in the script, Kaminski and her team of powerhouse actors give us a glimpse into the heart of the never-ending tension between people like Seth who want to help others and people who merrily plunder.
Throughout, Smucker’s parallelograms are an apt, minimalist delight — “Dry Powder” is about people who work the angles.