theater (reviews)

“Kings” Passes Bechdel Test, Drowns in Design

aya cash gilllian jacobs [joan marcus] [resized]

Aya Cash as Lauren and Gillian Jacobs as Kate in Kings by Sarah Burgess. Photo: Joan Marcus.

[article as originally published in The Clyde Fitch Report, February 20, 2018.]

In the new play by Sarah Burgess, hyper-aggro sound design nearly ruins the storytelling.

Playwright Sarah Burgess plums politics for her newest play Kings at the Public Theater. The production of this timely story of Washington, DC lobbyists and the politicians they serve just barely survives an overwhelming design — sounds disrupt, lights blind, and the set is unnecessarily twee. This is a better play than the design allows it to be.

Burgess started studying filmmaking at NYU and ended up telling stories on stage. In the past two years, the Public has mounted two of these stories. Dry Powder was plucked out of a stack of unsolicited manuscripts and staged in the spring of 2016. (All hail the literary departments that read scripts that come over the transom from new, unexpected sources.) That play tackled the world of traders, hedge funds, big-money machinations — and with a tiny cast, a fraction of the one that populated the recent Junk at Lincoln Center Theater that dealt with some of the same issues (and was hyper-designed). Dry Powder was showered with luck for its run — Hamilton director Thomas Kail; a geometric set design by Rachel Hauck; a starry cast including Claire Danes and Hank Azaria. Kail and Burgess have now re-teamed at the Public for Kings, focused on political machinations and similarly high stakes.

Political dramas require attention to language and nuanced relationships. In The Best Man (first staged in 1960, first filmed in 1964), Gore Vidal addresses warring factions in an old-school political party’s convention and the deal-making that goes on to whip votes for one candidate or another. The politics play out in smoky backrooms and right before our eyes: a past homosexual relationship threatens to bring down a promising career, discussed in hushed tones. In the 2000 film The Contender, written and directed by Rod Lurie, a senator played by Joan Allen confronts assertions about her own sexual past; her colleagues must decide whether to side with, pull away from, or confront those allegations. These stories evoke the huge impact of conventional lives lived in an outsized arena. The politics quietly resonate, power emanating from the subject not the surroundings. It’s philosophy and it’s story, not bombast.

In Kings, the setting should frame the telling of the play. Two Texas representatives and two political operatives interact over several months, with winners and losers and lessons learned. Kudos to Burgess for crafting a four-character play with three women and one man, of imagining peers for whom gender as sexual object is secondary. Kudos to Burgess for illustrating the Bechdel test with aplomb: female characters who speak with each other about business, their past and present lives with one another, and their ideas, rather than their relationships with men.

Veteran political operatives, lobbyists who move in and out of positions in Congress and in associations, provide the backbone of the action of the play. Lauren and Kate (Aya Cash and Gillian Jacobs — both elegant and smart) banter as long-term, friendly adversaries who know each other’s business, and they also know which political actors are where on which issue. We later learn they were lovers in the past as if that’s just one more demographic detail — none of the other characters even react to it. If sexual politics were determinative in The Best Man and The Contender, in the world of Kings, things have moved on to much more dangerous stuff.


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