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This smart new work by Sarah Burgess (“Dry Powder”) fails to introduce little that’s new about the present state of politicians and lobbyists.

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Gillian Jacobs and Eisa Davis in a scene from The Public Theater’s production of Sarah Burgess’ “Kings” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

David Kaufman

David Kaufman, Critic

Despite some terrific acting, it’s hard to root for any of the four characters in Kings, even if the play is one long competition between all of them. This smart new work by Sarah Burgess (Dry Powder)fails to introduce little that’s new about the present state of politicians and lobbyists–and their overly intimate relationships. But it’s also been put together with an admirable efficiency that spells it out clearly for those members of the audience who haven’t been paying enough attention to the daily headlines and all they entail.

The focus in Kings is on Sydney Millsap (a fierce and feisty Eisa Davis), a relative novice Representative from Texas, who, early in her political career, is trying to upset veteran Senator John McDowell (the always reliable Zach Grenier), who also represents the Lone Star State. Between them constantly come the young lobbyists, Lauren (Aya Cash) and Kate (Gillian Jacobs), who, at first anyway, are each other’s biggest booster. While Kate’s latest cause is a podiatrist association, Lauren, who works with McDowell, says, “You’re like the best healthcare mind in Washington.”

The opening is set at a fund-raiser for Millsap in Vail, Colorado, and it immediately establishes Burgess’s sharp ear for snappy, realistic dialogue. “Did she run on opioids,” Lauren asks, referring to Millsap, whom we have yet to meet. “Yeah,” responds Kate, “You can’t not these days.”

Aya Cash and Zach Grenier in a scene from The Public Theater’s production of Sarah Burgess’ “Kings” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

After Millsap arrives on the scene, Kate points out that the new congresswoman is “the first woman and the first person of color to represent” her Northern Dallas district. Burgess also works hard to establish Millsap as a person of values and ethics, as well, which is not only what she runs on, but, ironically, is what ultimately proves her undoing.

In another context, and after Millsap says she saw Lauren’s picture “on the cover of Washington magazine last month,” Kate also tells Millsap that Lauren is half of the “top DC gay power couples under 45.” In addition to everything else, Burgess endeavors to be up-to-the-minute with her specific references.

Though it’s not without a sense of humor, the rapid-fire dialogue comes at you too fast, however, and it’s contained in too many brief scenes, each separated by flashing neon lights, bits of music, and the need to rearrange the set’s six pieces of furniture: two tall tables–which also are, at times, positioned on their sides to serve as benches–and four chairs. (The scenic design is by Anna Louizos, the lighting by Jason Lyons, and the original music and sound by Lindsay Jones.) The flashing lights and loud music may have been director Thomas Kail’s ploy to distract us from the many scene changes.

Aya Cash and Gillian Jacobs in a scene from The Public Theater’s production of Sarah Burgess’ “Kings” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

And despite the many contemporary references, as my theater-going companion said after seeing the play, Kings is really just an update of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, about an idealistic congressman (played by James Stewart), who, like Millsap, is unwilling to work with lobbyists or corrupt politicians. Millsap even says, “I don’t want to be told what to do by a finance lobbyist,” and that “risk is rewarded.” But in the end, it’s not. That may make Kings more realistic, but that isn’t necessarily better.

But then again, there are the performances. If Davis and Grenier are both superb at realizing their characters, Cash and Jacobs–as the young, whippersnapping lobbyists–are good at negotiating their highs and their lows, or their wins and their loses. In the end, it seems like everyone has lost, just as it seems that we have as well, in the now not-so-great U.S. of A.

Kings (extended through April 1, 2018)

The Public Theater

LuEsther Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit

Running time: one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission

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David Kaufman
About David Kaufman (59 Articles)
David Kaufman has been covering the theater in New York since 1981. A former theater critic for the New York Daily News, he was also a long-time contributor to the Nation, Vanity Fair, the Village Voice and the New York Times. He is also the author of the award-winning Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam, the best-selling Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, and his most recent biography, Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin.

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