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Aisle View: Big Money at the Public

is not, as you might suspect, another one of those contemporary dramas about affluent Manhattan husbands trying to adjust to life with their toddler sleeping in the next room.
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John Krasinski, Hank Azaria and Claire Danes in Dry Powder.
Joan Marcus
There's not much theatrical electricity to be found in an evening of talk about leveraged buyouts, outsourcing and offshoring, is there? Or is there? Sarah Burgess's Dry Powder is altogether crackling, allowing us to cut through the jargon and delve into an engrossing power-play as a pair of corporate raiders battle their way through a financial tug of war. Which is more like a battle of the gladiators, but that seems to be the point.

Dry Powder is not, as you might suspect, another one of those contemporary dramas about affluent Manhattan husbands trying to adjust to life with their toddler sleeping in the next room. The term is mergers & acquisitions slang for cash or marketable securities kept fluid, so that you can instantly pounce on the next big deal that comes along before your competitors discover it. Kind of like keeping a household reserve fund stashed in the cookie jar, if your cookie jar is big enough to hold hundreds of millions.

Rick (Hank Azaria) is a corporate raider of the worst type. While the Messrs. Trump and Romney are not nowadays as chummy as Damon & Pythias, say, Rick can be seen as a slash-pillage-and-fire combination of the two. (He even uses Bain Capital--Romney's old firm--as a consultant.) Rick broke away from the M&A department at Goldman to form KMM Management with deal-finders Seth (John Krasinski), who is hungry, and Jenny (Claire Danes), who is hungry and brutal. Their high-flying firm implodes when they fire thousands of employees of a supermarket chain they have just bought on the same day that Rick throws himself a million-dollar engagement party with real elephants. Only one elephant, Rick keeps pointing out; but any way you shovel it, it is bad optics. Now, investors are fleeing--with all that dry powder.
Sanjit De Silva, Claire Danes and John Krasinski in Dry Powder.
Joan Marcus
Opportunity waltzes in with Landmark Luggage, which Seth's friend Jeff (Sanjit De Silva) is willing to sell for "491 at twenty percent equity," which works out to "only 98.2 out of the remaining dry powder." (Playwright Burgess's language is written in shorthand jargon, and throws off constant sparks.) Dry Powder turns into a morality play, or an immorality play, and it's not difficult to guess whether the buyout will ultimately turn into a morally-bankrupt sellout, principle-wise.

The cast is top grade, and quite a coup for a young playwright's first work at a major theatre. Azaria, who has won five Emmys or so for "The Simpsons," returns to the New York stage where he previously starred in the original Broadway cast of Spamalot. He is massively good here as the master of his universe; brilliant, powerful and rapacious. If someone is looking to do a grand revival of Angels in America, here's your Roy Cohn. Danes matches him. Mostly a creature of television, she brings to the stage the same laser-bright intensity and danger that she demonstrates in "Homeland." Danes also has appeared locally, in the 2007 Roundabout production of Pygmalion, but that was tame--acting-wise--compared to Jenny, who storms and attacks "with a hawk on her shoulder."

Krasinski, from "The Office" and elsewhere, does well as the equally rapacious but not-quite vicious enough Seth. De Silva--who doesn't have the household name status of his castmates--nevertheless turns in an excellent performance as the laid-back exec from California, looking to protect his luggage company and his employees.

Amping up the electricity of Burgess's script is director Thomas Kail, who lately did that other show about the guy on the ten-dollar bill. (One suspects that by this point in time, Kail has amassed his own personal cookie jar-full of dry powder. And deservedly so.) The play--and the performers--crackle throughout, although if Kail & Co. plan to continue past the Public they might want to do some trimming as Seth lags, somewhat, during the final half hour.

Rachel Hauck's set is simple--a smooth rectangular platform with four, blue, cube-like units that serve as desks and stools, keeping the mood icy cool and liquid. Jason Lyons provides precise lighting on the shifting stage areas while flooding the walls of the Martinson Theater, enveloping the play and the audience in color.
John Krasinski and Claire Danes in Dry Powder.
Joan Marcus
Critical enthusiasm for the play will prove somewhat academic, alas; the entire run already seems to be totally sold out. All too often, new plays with TV-star-filled casts tend to do well despite fizzling out, dramaturgically speaking. Dry Powder, though, absolutely sizzles.
Sarah Burgess's Dry Powder opened March 22, 2016 and continues through May 1 at the Public Theater