Calling all Bernie Sanders fans. There’s a pageant of red meat for you onstage at the Public Theater, where Sarah Burgess’s “Dry Powder,” about rapacious wheeling and dealing in the world of high finance, opened on Tuesday night. Take your forks and knives — and heck, your pitchforks, too — and dig in!
As befits a slick drama set in sleek boardrooms — or, more likely, as befits a play addressing the hot-button topics of income inequality and the collapse of American manufacturing — the production has attracted a first-class cast and creative team. Claire Danes, the “Homeland” stalwart, and John Krasinski, the sexy-goofy star of “The Office,” play founding partners in a private equity firm. Hank Azaria is the company’s president. The production’s director is Thomas Kail, riding high on the smash success of “Hamilton.”
As the play opens, Mr. Azaria’s Rick is in a foul mood. He’s been fending off anxious calls from investors who have been targeted by protesters after Rick gave himself a lavish engagement party (the elephant was definitely a bad idea) at the same time the company was announcing layoffs at a grocery store chain it had bought.
This doesn’t faze Ms. Danes’s Jenny, whose immersion in her job and the world of the 1-percenters she inhabits is pretty much total. When told of the angry mobs descending upon the firm’s investors, Jenny scoffs: “Of course they’re protesting. That’s what unemployed people do.”
Jenny sports a fresh blowout so sharp that her blond hair looks as if it would cut your throat if she flipped it in your direction. And rather than come to your aid, Jenny would probably step over your bleeding body to sidle into a town car and head to her next meeting. (She travels only by town car, never by cab.)
More understanding of Rick’s distress is Mr. Krasinski’s Seth, who believes he has found a deal that, magic-bullet-like, will make all the bad publicity go away while making the firm a nice chunk of change. He’s friendly with the C.E.O. of a luggage company in Sacramento that’s looking to be acquired, and the price he’s negotiated is irresistible.
Selling it hard, Seth says: “This is a slam-dunk growth play. An American family business, American designers, American made. We’d be creating jobs right here in the U.S. Think about how helpful that would be right now.” He and the C.E.O., Jeff Schrader (Sanjit De Silva), devise a plan to sell custom luggage online and have high hopes of a future initial public offering.
While Jenny cannot deny that the price is right, she ridicules the idea as pie in the sky, and as the deal goes into motion, hatches an alternative plan: a “liquidation play” that would involve stripping the company’s assets and ending production, or, as Rick suggests, maybe just moving production to Mexico or Bangladesh. She brings up numbers that Rick finds awfully hard to resist.
Ms. Burgess’s grasp of the jargon of high finance is impressive. Terms like “sell-side banker,” “zero-based budgeting,” “dividend recap” and “disintermediation” are tossed around like confetti as Seth and Jenny make the case for doing the deal in radically different ways.
Still, “Dry Powder” — the title refers to available investment capital on hand — takes a long time to move beyond mildly entertaining verbal fisticuffs between Jenny and Seth and dizzying instruction in high-end deal making. These people may live their jobs, but watching them do so does not have infinite appeal, unless you enjoy clucking at amorality for 100 minutes.
Jenny is an amusingly drawn gorgon of greed. Her jabs at Seth and his more empathetic approach to his work can be savagely acerbic. But she’s also so heartless, ruthless and snobbish (referring to Yale as a “second-tier” Ivy League college) that she borders on caricature. If there’s an element of stiffness in Ms. Danes’s nonetheless tartly funny performance, it probably derives from a glaring lack of nuance in the character. Jenny is lovably hateful, but eventually, even the pleasure of inwardly hissing at her begins to pall.
Mr. Krasinski is excellent as Seth, whose sparring with Jenny at one point descends, hilariously, into an argument over who got a higher score on the G.M.A.T., the business school entry exam. Seth’s growing anxiety and anguish as he sees Jenny manipulating Rick is palpably conveyed. But when he’s offered an alternative by Jeff, who suggests that they scuttle the deal and bring Seth aboard under different circumstances, Mr. Krasinski nicely conveys Seth’s ambivalence about leaving his comfortable berth. What do you do with a yacht in Sacramento, after all?
Mr. Azaria’s Rick is a convincing portrait of a cold-eyed, moneyed titan who’s dismayed to discover that the opprobrium his fateful party touched off may be disastrous for his company. But Rick gradually returns to his ethical equilibrium — meaning, well, I won’t say much more for fear of giving away the game.
“Dry Powder,” directed at a brisk clip by Mr. Kail, on a chic, pulsating blue platform designed by Rachel Hauck, becomes more engrossing when we meet Jeff, played with a nice measure of affability by Mr. De Silva. He flies in to seal the deal and finds himself unexpectedly embroiled in the battle over his company’s future. Ms. Burgess tosses in some jolting twists that disrupt, to use a fashionable term, our view of at least one of the characters.
Still, it’s always pretty clear where Ms. Burgess’s sympathies lie. (If you know the history and cultural bent of the Public Theater, you can probably guess where.) It’s hard not to laugh when Jenny, practicing a speech she plans to give to finance students, casts herself and her colleagues as victims of outrageous oppression by an envious rabble ignorant of all the good they do.
But you know you’re laughing at a straw man, or rather a straw woman. For all its flashy talk, “Dry Powder” mostly just brings us the unsurprising news that the folks who work in the higher realms of high finance are very, very interested in making lots and lots of money.