The marketing team at Chili’s will be over the moon, at least.
In Sarah Burgess’ play Kings at New York City’s Public Theater, the current state of our politics—its venality, immorality, its pathetic and crippling compromises, its personal and public cost, the power of lobbyists and special interests—is wittily, if ruefully, deconstructed.
Thomas Kail, the director, has gone from directing the smash-hit political parable of Hamilton set in the past to Kings, a political parable very much in the present day.
But Chili’s... lucky ole Chili’s comes away from the play with a gold star and an unimpeachable record. In one scene set at the eponymous restaurant chain, a sizzling fajita is even brought on stage, and—negating a snooty lobbyist’s initial disdain—even wins her over to its smoky charms. It may even win over a few audience members, or make them jones for a sizzling fajita.
When we enter the Chili’s domain, the lighting even transforms the space, through slits in the walls, into the restaurant chain’s familiar red and green livery. Anna Louizos’ staging and Jason Lyons’ lighting is simple: some chairs, a table, a boundary wall of a coffee machine that stays static.
The lighting takes us from ski resort to Disneyland and to bars. We are encouraged, very literally by Kail and his cast and crew, to think of the space in front of us as a political arena. The lack of adornment means we focus on the quick-smart delivery of Burgess’ words. In her debut play, Dry Powder, she focused on private equity. Both plays are about cost: financial and human.
Eisa Davis is Rep. Sydney Millsap, a newly elected Texas congresswoman with a tellingly damning last syllable in her surname, who wants to do things her way. She intends to remain impervious to the overtures of lobbyists Kate (Gillian Jacobs) and Lauren (Aya Cash).
Millsap doesn’t want to be wined and dined in Vail, where we first meet her. We assume she is Democrat (this is never overtly stated), we assume the time is now, as the politics of division that are referenced speak of now. Everything about Kings looks and sounds like now, particularly with the renewed calls for politicians to break free from the funding tentacles of the National Rifle Association.
Burgess has a keen satirical ear; we roll our eyes as Millsap does to be constantly described as “the first woman and the first person of color” to represent her district. She is also a Gold Star widow, a party dream candidate and she knows it, and she defies every stereotype used in her favor and against her.
When Kate and Lauren try to cozy up to Millsap initially, she rebuffs them. But Burgess is canny enough to bring political reality to bear on Millsap’s principled stand. Kate explains to Millsap the unspoken exchange mechanisms of meeting lobbyists and those they represent.
“This isn’t some kind of corrupt enterprise where I give you a check and you sponsor legislation I want,” Kate tells Millsap. “Part of my job is to help connect you with money, but only because of positions you already hold.”
Millsap rejects her. Kate tells her she is the one being rude and short-sighted; she, and all her ideals and those people she wants to represent, will be the ones who lose if she refuses to play the Washington game.
An exemplar of the latter, Sen. John McDowell (Zach Grenier), is also from Texas. He’s an old-school operative, happy to schmooze and deal-make, and Burgess sets him and Millsap on a collision course that puts both their careers in jeopardy.
The play’s strength is its relentless questioning of every character. Kate and Lauren are not principle-free; they merely see their jobs as jobs. They are morally desiccated only in that they are commercial parasites living on the hog of the body politic. The tension of part of the play—will Kate cross the Rubicon and join Millsap in her political life?—feels not-so-cliffhanger a decision. Of course she won’t.
Grenier is an excellent growling and compromised McDowell. He has made so many compromises and moral self-trespasses, he doesn’t even recognize them as such. He doesn’t recognize the strangulation of his own moral compass by the system. This is just a swamp to keep his head above the surface in.
Millsap’s anecdote about a city of people eating salmon canapés rather than fulfilling their public service is sad and yet also ripe for mockery the third time she uses it.
As McDowell says: “None of us have a job. We’re in a permanent state of re-application. Even me next year.” Lauren tells him at one schmoozefest: “You have to talk about the Middle East with the guy who inherited the Krispy Kreme doughnut fortune.”
Burgess’ point is clear: Public service comes at a high price, felt most brutally by the public who are being so ill-served by the people who would rather eat canapés than do their jobs.
Davis has, in her character’s love of Chili’s terms, the most sizzling role, and she is both funny and pointed, showing us Millsap’s moral strength and practical weaknesses.
But all the characters stay static in their beliefs. Too often it feels as if people are just talking very fast in an episode of The West Wing or Veep. If that speed is supposed to plausibly show their acquaintance with health care and quid pro quos, for the non-D.C. swamp-dwelling audience it may just sound like a lot of smart-tinged hot air.
The arguments at the beginning of the play about lobbying and politicking, principle versus pragmatism, are the same as at the end. Nobody changes that much. Millsap’s idealism isn’t challenged to her detriment; the lobbyists—apart from a modicum of agonizing on Kate’s part—stay true to what they do. With this stasis of plot comes a certain stasis of tone. The chairs and table are reconfigured on the bare set, and the speechifying from different political and moral corners continues.
There’s a darker, richer, less wonkier play within Kings, which is more clean game of chess than byzantine House of Cards.
The revealing constant at the end of Kings is the power—strange and undefined as it is—of Kate and Lauren. D.C. is their town. For Burgess, those who grease the levers of power are the true power players. Those who operate the levers, the elected officials, are merely pawns of big business and the health industry, or whatever industry is lobbying them.
“A republic doesn’t work unless its people actually believe in their power,” says Millsap. “And why should Americans believe in their power at this point? Look what their elected representatives do all day.” Meaningfully, and mournfully at the end of Kings, the loser will come as no surprise.
Kings is at the Public Theater until April 30. Book tickets here.