Left to right: Aldo Billingslea, Emily Jeanne Brown, Kevin Kemp and Jeremy Kahn in Sarah Burgess’s Dry Powder at the Aurora in Berkeley, directed by Jennifer King. Photo: David Allen
at the Aurora in Berkeley, directed by Jennifer King. Photo: David Allen

It’s astonishing that Sarah Burgess, author of the entertaining and engrossing Dry Powder, doesn’t have an extensive financial background, so fine-tuned is her portrayal of the private equity firm that is the subject of her play.

Briefly, private equity (PE) firms are financial organizations that make investments in private companies through several strategies, including leveraged buyouts. A PE firm dissects a company it controls and then often sells off assets for a profit, without regard for the wellbeing of the company’s management, workers or customers. The title, Dry Powder, refers to the cash PE firms hold in reserve for new acquisitions.

Ms. Burgess’s 90-minute creative critique of capitalism is a hard look at the inner workings of a Manhattan PE firm controlled by tough-as-nails Rick (Aldo Billingslea, Collapse) and the relationships he has with his two partners — hardhearted Jenny (Emily Jeanne Brown) and the more sympathetic Seth (Jeremy Kahn, Wittenberg) — as well as with the viewpoints they represent.

The crisis at Rick’s firm begins when the news gets out that at least one elephant prances about at Rick’s super-lavish engagement party. Rick vehemently disputes the tabloids’ and his partners’ contention that two elephants attended, as though one elephant would be acceptably understated. Unfortunately, the bash coincided with forced job cuts at one of the PE firm’s companies.

With protests over the job cuts gaining ground, and the firm’s investors also being embarrassingly targeted, Seth argues that buying a business called Landmark Luggage might be just the positive publicity that the firm needs. “This is a slam-dunk growth play,” he says. “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.” Seth has been courting Landmark Luggage’s chief executive Jeff (Kevin Kemp, Luna Gale). The two have devised a plan whereby Rick’s firm would buy out Landmark’s 79-year-old owner, and Landmark would sell customized luggage on line, thus increasing profits.

Seth’s archrival Jenny argues that more money will be made by selling Landmark’s assets, moving the luggage manufacturing off-shore and targeting upwardly mobile Chinese people as buyers. Jenny, whose lack of compassion and love of lucre is close to a caricature, is reminiscent of another similar take-no-prisoners fictional woman, the venture capitalist Laurie Bream (Suzanne Cryer) in HBO’s Silicon Valley.

It is up to Rick to decide which course to follow, amid rapidly changing circumstances. The conflicts are between strict capitalism and more humane considerations, and between a national and international outlook. If Jenny were not such an unfeeling automaton, I wonder if audiences’ sympathies might be a bit different. Theirs is not an easy business.

Although there is a tad of a slow start to Dry Powder — as when Jenny and Seth bicker about their G.M.A.T. scores (business school entry exam) — director Jennifer King succeeds in keeping the action moving along, even when the only action is conversation. All the performers are first-rate, although Emily Jeanne Brown as Jenny has the juiciest role and makes the most of it. As Seth, Jeremy Kahn thrives with his more nuanced character. Aldo Billingslea’s Rick is dynamic and vibrant, but it strikes me that the actual head of a PE firm would not lose his cool so readily and so often. Kevin Kemp hits the right notes as Jeff, the CEO, concerned about his company as well as himself.

Dry Powder, Burgess’s first produced play, opened in 2016 at New York’s Public Theater after its artistic director found her unsolicited script among the pile he reads every year. Her new play, Kings, about money, politics and the state of the American republic, was produced at the Public Theater earlier this year.

Dry Powder runs through July 29. For information, extended performance dates and tickets, visit Aurora online.

Avatar photo

Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...