The myth that a righteous rookie could accomplish more on behalf of the American public than any seasoned, pragmatic political operator is one that has driven lots of squishy-hearted movies, from Frank Capra’s 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Ivan Reitman’ 1993 comedy Dave. Arena Stage turned the latter into a musical earlier this year, even as real-world events were detonating the warm fantasy of the Know-Nothing Chief Executive, hopefully forever.
Kings, written by Alexandria native Sarah Burgess and first performed at the Public Theater in New York early this year, is another story about an idealistic novice politician, but it owes more to Aaron Sorkin and Armando Iannucci than it does to Capra. It’s an absorbing, utterly credible procedural about how the opaque funding of our political campaigns inevitably grinds even the shrewdest and/or most honorable of candidates into mediocrities. Marti Lyons’ streamlined production for Studio X, Studio Theatre’s newish-work series, is all clean angles and svelte blocking, reflecting the gulf between what we, the people, see and what our elected surrogates do.
Burgess’ narrative follows Sydney Millsap (Nehassaiu deGannes), a freshman representative from the Texas 24th. That she’s both the first woman and the first African-American to be elected to Congress from her district leads every profile written about her, but she’s also a former accountant for an oil and gas company. That experience has allowed her to see clearly how a carried interest loophole keeps billions out of the U.S. Treasury. Who benefits? Not “job creators.” Just fund managers, getting paid for the “risks” they took by gambling with other people’s money—and, as she’ll learn, the lobbyists they employ to make sure one (ahem) man, one vote remains just another insidious fantasy.
When John McDowell (Elliott Bales), a powerful Senate committee chair with the presidency on his mind, tries to get Sydney to stop spooking their party’s donors, Sydney declines to capitulate to The Bastards, opting instead to challenge McDowell in the primary. Filling both their ears are Lauren and Kate, two smart, professionally amoral lobbyists, played by Laura C. Harris and Kelly McCrann, respectively. The pleasure of Kings come from Burgess’ command of the professional language of these kingmakers, and from her persuasive conjuring of their habitats: ski weekends, golf getaways, donor events that make even (or especially) pols with their hands out want to slit their wrists.
Though the entire company is excellent, deGannes is the standout. We see her giving speeches and debating Bales on the campaign trail, revealing how little space exists between her public and private personas. The latter is on view in her one-on-ones with those lobbyists in her office or, in the play’s best scene, at a Chili’s. That Burgess seems to have genuine sympathy for all her characters even as she excoriates the system they all prop up is a contradiction that gives the piece an energy you’d never expect from a play about taxes.
To Jan. 6 at 1501 14th St. NW. $20–$62. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org.