Dry Powder at the Alley: Who Knew High Finance Could Be So Funny?

Elizabeth Bunch as Jenny, John Feltch as Rick and Jay Sullivan as Seth in Dry Powder.
Elizabeth Bunch as Jenny, John Feltch as Rick and Jay Sullivan as Seth in Dry Powder. Photo by Lynn Lane

click to enlarge Elizabeth Bunch as Jenny, John Feltch as Rick and Jay Sullivan as Seth in Dry Powder. - PHOTO BY LYNN LANE
Elizabeth Bunch as Jenny, John Feltch as Rick and Jay Sullivan as Seth in Dry Powder.
Photo by Lynn Lane
Leveraged buyout, LPs, equity position, return multiple, IPO, LOI. Do these financial terms mean anything to you? Would you go see a play that throws expressions like these around without explanation, expecting the audience to follow along?

Before you answer, let’s try this. How about a play in which an angry protest of 99 percenters is threatening to topple a greedy private equity firm? A plot in which the curtain is unflatteringly pulled back on the folks yanking the chains on Wall Street for their own personal profit. Does that interest you?

If you answered no, I get it. Financial plays can be a heady and confusing slog. But even with a script chock-full of investment jargon, a plot dealing exclusively with the machinations behind one specific deal and the not-so-subtle undertone of moral tsk-tsking, Sarah Burgess’s Dry Powder is anything but an impenetrable grind. Instead it’s a crackling tight 93 minutes of intrigue, backstabbing, ambition, personality conflicts and insight into, if we may paraphrase Mr. Miranda, the boardroom where it happens. Even better, it’s delivered to us tied up in one extremely riotous bow. Who knew the evil ways of high finance could be so damn funny?

Rick (John Feltch) is the head of a New York private equity firm in the midst of a PR crisis. Seems that spending $1 million on his engagement party in Bali (elephant entertainment included) just as his company was laying off hundreds of employees at a national grocery chain wasn’t such a good idea. Not only is there the scathingly condemnatory article in the Times, but there are protesters outside his building chanting for justice. How to fix the problem? Junior partner Seth (Jay Sullivan), a star financial deal maker with a seemingly decent moral compass, thinks he has the no-brainer answer. Landmark Luggage, a California company, is for sale at a bargain, only $491 million. Seth suggests they buy the company, change the business to online bespoke luggage and in the process create an American success story that actually creates jobs in the United States. Nothing better than good publicity to make people forget your bad publicity, right? Plus, truth be told, Seth really likes Landmark CEO Jeff (Chris Hutchinson) and is eager to concoct a deal that does right by him.

But Jenny (Elizabeth Bunch), Rick’s other topnotch junior partner, is having none of it. In her mind there will always be “resenters” out there, unhappy at the work they do. So what? Price of business, she feels with all the power of her callously ambitious, socially graceless heart. In her model, the firm would buy Landmark, fire 99 percent of its staff, move to offshore manufacturing, market the product to the emerging Chinese middle class and then sell the company for a huge profit before it eventually runs out of gas.

Once the opposing views are set, Dry Powder (a financial term for available money not yet invested) becomes a raucous cage match in which Jenny and Seth do their best to insult, outwit and outplay each other in order to convince Rick that their business model is the right way to go.

It’s the insult part that provides most of the humor in Burgess’s financially sophisticated but layperson-digestible script. Even though it was written prior to our present administration, much of the comedy can’t help but pick up the whiff of things that are. In Jenny’s crosshairs are the protest outside — “Of course they’re protesting; that’s what unemployed people do”; the unfavorable press — “Who takes The New York Times seriously in our world?”; and a colleague she feels is weak — “Vacations are for expendable people like you.” We laugh heartily but not without the unease of knowing these are sentiments we’ve heard before. Right from the very top these days, in fact.

Not that the show is overtly political, mind you. It’s just a fortunate coincidence that the Alley has programmed Dry Powder to fall where it does in the season. I say fortunate because grand as their productions can be; the Alley is often tone deaf when it comes to which plays we need to see when. Or more concerning, which shows we need to see at all. In this instance however, the stars aligned, not only with scheduling, but with the entire production.

Dry Powder may have been originally directed at the Public Theatre in NYC last year by none other than Thomas Kail of Hamilton fame, but I’d venture that director Taibi Magar’s spitfire version oozing with caustic energy and derision could give the original a run for its money.

Minimally chic office spaces (Kevin Rigdon’s design) sleekly slide into and out of the stage on moving hydraulic platforms highlighted by a modern neon framing glow. Tall, angular, metallic oblong pillars provide a backdrop evoking the skyscraper gridlock that is the NYC financial skyline. The look is professional posh but never cold; Bradley King’s lighting design ensures the modern offices and boardrooms are never assaulted by unflattering brightness.

Besides, there’s no need for extra lighting; the sparks that fly in and around Rick, Seth and Jenny provide more than enough flame to light up the entire theater. Magar has her talented cast pumped up and ready to spar, and she gives them ample room to strut their stuff.

As kingmaker/senior partner Rick, Feltch, in his power suit and slicked-back hair, alternates between laconic observations and explosive anger. He’s playing the young partners off against each other, and Feltch never lets us forget that he’s the one in charge, no apologies or explanations needed. As Seth, Sullivan, giving a knockout performance, swaggers with the ease and confidence of a young hot shot in an expensive suit. But look at how often his hands are in his pockets – a defensive stance? And what about his wonderfully naturalistic but suspicious bromance interaction with Jeff (played with terrific down-home ease by Chris Hutchinson). Is Seth just selling the deal or does he really believe in the numbers? And then, of course, there are his valiant attempts to respond to Jenny’s hilariously cruel, razor-sharp attacks. Can his insults ever match hers?

The answer is no, and that’s what makes Jenny, and Bunch’s crackerjack deadpan performance, the star of the show. Donning expensive-looking killer heels and pencil skirts (kudos to costume designer Tilly Grimes for getting the sharply minimal look correct) and with a dark liquid-shiny sharp bob, Jenny lives for belittling Seth. And not just about business; no matter is too small for her derision, not even his unborn child. “Is it a boy or a girl,” she asks him. “A girl,” he says. “Didn’t you notice the pink ‘it’s a girl’ balloons in my office that everyone gave me?” “Oh,” says Jenny, “I thought those were about you.”

With such a strongly humorous portrayal by Bunch, we can almost forget that Burgess has drawn Jenny a little too close to the central-casting mark. A greedy, unfeeling, ambitious woman, married to her job and lacking in social skills. A bitch. One-dimensional. We’ve seen this before. And yet, in the final scene, as Jenny delivers a hilariously awkward speech to young finance students at NYU, Bunch has us eating so perfectly out of her corporate hand that we forgive it all.

Burgess herself may not forgive the banking culture that puts money over feeling, the bottom line over moral responsibility, but in the end Dry Powder takes pains not to cast blame in any one direction. There’s enough culpability to go around in this script as the deal is finally made.

“Allow less intelligent people to hate you; it’s their destiny and it costs you nothing,” Jenny barks with exasperation near the end of the show. We recoil at the divisive notion even as the logic of the idea taps on our shoulder. We walk out of the theater thinking not just about the boardroom divisions Burgess has drawn, but how partitions of a similar kind have now shaped us as a nation. Art imitates life which then imitates art. Only unlike the robust laughter we’ve just experienced in the theater, in real life, we find ourselves with little to be amused by. All the more reason to see this show.

Dry Powder continues through February 12 at Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information call 713-220-5700 or visit $30-$93.

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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman