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How an Unknown Writer Is Taking on the Shadowy World of Private Equity

DRY POWDERPUBLIC THEATER/MARTINSON HALL425 LAFAYETTE STREET, NEW YORKDRY POWDERPUBLIC THEATER/MARTINSON HALL425 LAFAYETTE STREET, NEW YORK
Hank Azaria, left, Claire Danes, and John Krasinski , right, in "Dry Powder." Photography by Joan Marcus

Dry Powder has to be one of the more unlikely hits in this New York theater season. Written by a young playwright, it tackles the complex, shadowy world of private equity. Plot points revolve around financial acronyms like LPs, LOIs, and LBOs. Oh, and it’s a comedy.

Yet even before “Dry Powder” officially opened late last month at New York’s Public Theater, it was sold out. The 95-minute play features an A-list cast, including Claire Danes (“Homeland”), Hank Azaria (“The Simpsons”) and John Krasinski (“The Office”). It also had the imprimatur of Oskar Eustis, the legendary head of the Public Theater known for minting such smashes as “Hamilton.”

“Dry Powder,” a term that refers to uninvested capital, opens with Rick (Azaria), KMM Capital’s founder, dealing with PR fallout from having thrown himself a lavish engagement party (complete with an elephant) the same week the firm announced layoffs at a supermarket chain it owns. Now there’s a media furor and Occupy Wall Street-type protests against his investors. “Of course, they’re protesting. That’s what unemployed people do,” says Jenny (Danes), one of the firm’s partners.

Another partner, Seth (Krasinski), comes up with a “win-win” plan to buy out a luggage company aimed at the middle class traveler. Much of the play revolves around Jenny and Seth sparring over the ethics, finances and “optics” of this deal. Should KMM lay off staff and extract as much as possible for their investors, as Jenny insists is their job, or should KMM shore up the struggling luggage company, as Seth argues, saving American jobs and perhaps salvaging KMM’s reputation? The difference is about $20 million.

“I wasn’t trying to make any political or societal statement,” Sarah Burgess, the playwright, said in an interview last week. “I am interested in the tension between these two points of view, the one that says, ‘Maybe I should make a little less if it means [people] will still be employed,’ and the one that says, ‘Not my problem.’ If you really are a capitalist, where do you draw the line as far as pursuing your own self-interest?”

Reviews for “Dry Powder” have been mixed, with some critics calling it “engrossing and entertaining” and others complaining it’s stacked too heavily, “a pageant of red meat” for Bernie Sanders fans.

Burgess, however, seemed unfazed by the criticism. This is her first play to get produced. Except for a stint as a GMAT tutor, the 2005 NYU graduate had no business background when she decided to write about private equity. Finding out that Eustis wanted to stage “Dry Powder” was “a surreal experience,” she recalled. “I was texting my girlfriend from the elevator after. I was stunned.”

“It’s rare, very rare that I read a play handed to me…and immediately announce, ‘We’re producing this,'” Oskar Eustis told The Playbill. “But that’s exactly what happened when I read an early draft.”

Sarah Burgess Dry Powder
Sarah Burgess, the playwright, with Director Thomas Kail, left, and Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis, right. Photography by Simon Luethi
Photography by Simon Luethi

The daughter of retired Naval commanders who studied film in college, Burgess said she became “obsessed” with private equity during the 2012 presidential election when Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s experience at Bain Capital became a central issue.

Intrigued, she began doing research, speaking to people in the industry and reading articles like a 2008 New Yorker piece in which Blackstone Group (BX) CEO Stephen Schwarzman reflected on the bad press he’d received after throwing himself a $3 million birthday party. Private equity is seen as a symbol of the people who are prospering from a world in flux,” Schwarzman said. “That’s a lightning-rod situation.”

Similarly, “Dry Powder” explores the simmering resentment against the high-flying financiers–from the point of view of those working in the industry. Seth frets that Wall Street has “lost its prestige” and wonders if “at some point, people will lose hope” and there will be a revolution. Jenny, on the other hand, says his plan will just “pump up an outdated model” that will eventually lose money, and she advises him, “There are people who think Goldman runs a shadow government. Allow less intelligent people to hate you.”

Burgess said she spoke to many men and women who worked in financial services, and tried to capture some of their conflicted feelings about their work through these characters. “Capitalism has never billed itself as an engine for social justice,” she said. “If you and I open restaurants across the street from each other, and yours is better, you should win. But in finance, it gets a little blurry. You can buy a company, take it over and it goes bankrupt and still be fine. Where is the penalty, the risk if you failed?”

But Burgess is quick to add she isn’t advocating reforms of the system. “I’m not qualified to have an opinion about that,” she said. “I just thought there was a tension in the ideas that could be funny and engaging for the kind of audience that likes thinking about those things.”

The play closes May 1. What’s next for Burgess? She’s working on a play about lobbyists.