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.”
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.
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 http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission