Encore Michigan

‘Dry Powder’ from Assembly Line Theatre spotlights the 1% vs 99%

Review September 16, 2019 David Kiley

DETROIT, Mich.The battle between the 1% and 99% is a real thing. Make no mistake about it. There has been, and there continues to be, a staggering migration of wealth to fewer people.

Chief executives who once made perhaps 30x the rate of pay of an hourly worker fifty years ago, today make more than 200 x that of the “worker.” Think, say, the CEO of Home Depot versus the hourly worker at the store.

This conflict, and the negative social dividends it is paying, is the subject of Dry Powder, a play performed by Assembly Line Theatre at the Hunt Street Station here through September 22nd.

Rick (Ken Alter) is the head of a private equity firm, and he has two underlings, Jenny (Anne Marie Damman) and Seth (Jon Kent). They are in the midst of debating and deliberating over a deal to acquire Landmark Luggage company, which has a business model of making bespoke luggage. Jenny favors buying it and then off-shoring the production, thus killing over 600 blue-collar jobs. Seth wants to keep the company and its labor force in California in place. Rick is in a pickle. He recently stripped a company the firm acquired, laid off the workforce and then on the same day threw a lavish party for himself and new bride. The story got picked up in the financial press, and pension funds and other investors were bailing on Rick’s firm for fear of the unpleasant association and poor public relations optics.

In many ways, the plot of Dry Powder does not much build upon or evolve from Oliver Stone’s long ago film Wall Street. “Greed is good.”

Ms. Damman’s Jenny is devoid of a moral center. She has speeches in the play, for example, in which she ridicules the notion of employees of a company taking work time to volunteer. She can’t stop laughing this overblown, irritating laugh. You get the idea she would have the sme laugh watching a fat guy choke to death at the next table at The Four Seasons. She embraces the divide between the haves and the have nots as the way things should be, and the way things have always been. Just make sure you are a have, and don’t worry about the have nots. And she launches into an inappropriate anecdote about a girl she knew in high school who could not comprehend, let alone excel at, Algebra or Calculus.

As if the ability to convert word problems to algebraic equations was an indication of anything. She doesn’t know that calculus doesn’t matter unless you are going to be a scientist or mathematician, but the audience does. While the point of her story is to make her schoolmate look pathetic, it is she who comes off as being unredeemable.

There is, in fact, a little bit of a comic book quality to Jenny–depicted and played the way a cold, ruthless alpha Wall Street dame would be by Marvel Comics in a series of graphic novels about the 1%; so much so that you kind of want to kill her in the end when she addresses an NYU undergraduate business class. She delivers it with all the annoying, hateful smugness of a Republican in an ultra-safe gerrymandered district who just voted against gun reform and made it easier or companies to pollute water supplies all in one breezy morning.

Jeff (Jacob Plante) plays the CEO of the luggage company. He has been working for months with Seth to put the buyout in place, and for reasons beyond knowing he trusts him to protect his workers, and him. Silly boy.

The script by Sarah Burgess, originally produced by The Public Theatre in New York, gets the basics and language of private equity firms right. Her dialogue, though, sometimes veers off the track not because it is not correct, but it just doesn’t seem like the way people talk. It’s written dialogue rather than conversational. But mostly, the dialogue crackles throughout the play just the way it would among people who are entirely transactional in their relationships and communications.

The play, directed by Cassandra Svacha and produced by Sean Paraventi, is performed in a common, shared workspace in the Hunt Street Station hive of offices here. The performance space is in what was the lobby of the police station back in the day. There is no theatrical light kit. The overhead LED lights go out as scenes change, turned off by Stage Manager Sarah Drum who cleverly adopts the role of a silent ensemble player. She turns the lights off in character, and then turns them back on upon a re-entrance (kind of blinding the audience for a hot second). The seating in the room ranges from chairs to a couple of couches and work-tables with chairs pulled up.

Megan Gesse provided costume advice. I don’t know how far that advice was taken. The actors had the look of providing their own clothes, which were sometimes not really quite right for people of their income level. But given the uniqueness of the space and minimalism of staging, costuming is not a big factor.

While the script may seem a little dated. The intensity of the obnoxious white privilege is utterly au currant. I’m not sure that casting Seth with an African-American actor is in the playwright’s casting notes, but it adds to the tension between he and Jenny in sometimes amusing ways. Seth is the only human in the firm with anything approaching a conscience, but we aren’t sure exactly why and how deep it runs.

The outcome of the story as it relates to Jeff and his company is entirely predictable before the denouement. But just because there isn’t a surprise plot twist does not mean it is disappointing. To the contrary, I predict we are going to be seeing more of this theme in art. It is a very timely story given the election cycle themes that are filling up news broadcasts, news sites and social media.

Art at its best shines a light on truth. There is presently a sprint in the U.S. by the financially elite to hide their wealth from taxes to a degree that far surpasses past eras. They lobby against spending money on public education, public infrastructure and deterring climate change on the idea that nothing will come of the investments because it’s too late anyway. They balk at spending on humanitarian relief of decimated places like Puerto Rico and The Bahamas. It’s about hoarding wealth. If their own beachfront villas get washed away, they have insurance, not to mention a mountain chalet to which they can retreat by helicopter or NetJet.

Dry Powder refers to the cash reserves kept on hand by a company or venture capital firm to cover future obligations, or make acquisitions. Some 70% of Americans do not have dry powder, or any powder at all.

Week of 11/11/2019

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