B Street’s ‘Dry Powder’ reckons with capitalism’s human failings

Does capitalism exploit our most self-serving tendencies? Does it corrupt completely, or is there room for humanity on a company’s bottom line?

The Western world now questions in earnest its relationship with the centuries-old economic system. Sarah Burgess’ Dry Powder wrestles the issue while striving to stay colorful in the drab setting of a Manhattan finance firm—and mostly succeeds.

The play opens as KMM Capital Management head Rick Hannel, played by Sacramento live theatre mainstay Dave Pierini, enters his chic midtown office, plays some Americana folk-rock on his smartphone and—in a surreal progression—strips to his t-shirt and boxers, opens the office window and leans precariously over its edge.

It’s at once amusing and unnerving. Will he jump? Will he slip? Is this some bizarre rite of open-aired self-cleansing?

The moment defuses as his right-hand woman Jenny (Melissa Parrett) enters the office and, in a comic betrayal of emotion, rolls her eyes.

Dave Pierini, Jason Kuykendall and Jahi Kearse in Dry Powder. [Photo by Rudy Meyers Photography]

We learn that Rick is distressed over protests of his firm resulting from negative New York Times coverage of his opulent engagement party, which involved at least one elephant. Jenny, a calculating numbers pro with an air of Claire Underwood cool, scoffs at the Times coverage and dismisses the protests in classic finance world parlance—these people are obviously jealous.

Enter KMM’s other top partner, Seth (Jason Kuykendall), a charming if somewhat difficult to trust dealmaker on the verge of securing a nearly-too-good-to-be-true purchase of a briefcase manufacturer in Sacramento. For just $491 million, Landmark Luggage will be theirs.

But a debate ensues in the KMM C-suite, as Jenny puts forth the more lucrative option of outsourcing manufacturing to Bangladesh and focusing sales on a rising Chinese middle class. Seth, who has spent months building rapport and working out a deal with Landmark exec Jeff Schrader (Jahi Kearse), asks what that means for the company’s hundreds of Sacramento employees.

They’ll have to find new jobs, of course.

To be sure, a production exploring ethics, morality and the human condition in the finance universe has its challenges. Does your average live theatre viewer recognize terms like “growth play” and “beta,” or know what acronyms like “LBO” and “LIO” stand for? The B Street Theatre staff do their best to ameliorate the issue with a vocabulary list in the playbill, but one wonders how many in the audience will take the time to study.

Dave Pierini, Melinda Parrett, Jahi Kearse and Jason Kuykendall in Dry Powder. [Photo: Rudy Meyers Photography]

The title Dry Powder refers to how much a private equity operation has in cash or liquid assets. This notion takes center stage as KMM’s issues mount with public pressure, and the firm is forced to reach out to an amoral acquaintance halfway across the world for some help with liquidity. In a tense, final confrontation demanding nuance and care from both Kearse and Kuykendall, we see what happens to our sense of community when other pressures are involved.

With its cheerless office setting and backroom finance deal plot, Dry Powder sometimes runs the risk of losing the viewer. But four strong performances, punctuated by Pierini’s absurd yet intense Rick and signed off with a surprise Parrett soliloquy, pull it off.

Tango scores by the Gotan Project—at once modern and classic—spin the viewer between scenes in this production that forces us to face the economic system to which we’ve been married for generations. The conclusion it draws leaves us little worth dancing for.

Dry Powder plays at B Street Theatre through April 29, 2018.


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Dave Kempa
Editor at VOICES: River City
Dave Kempa is the founder and editor of VOICES: River City.