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Theater review: At Shaker Bridge, ‘Dry Powder’ sizzles, but doesn’t explode

  • Theresa Kloos and Matt Crabtree in a rehearsal for "Dry Powder" at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield, N.H. (Courtesy Shaker Bridge Theatre)



Valley News Correspondent
Wednesday, February 13, 2019

In the jargon of high stakes finance, “dry powder” refers to the amount of cash reserves or liquid assets a corporation or an individual has on hand. Money to burn, in a sense.

But what happens when you need it, and don’t have it? And what if everything depends on getting it?

That is the basic premise behind Dry Powder, an acerbic comedy by Sarah Burgess now playing in a snappy, fast-moving production at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield through Feb. 24.

Produced by Shaker Bridge artistic director Bill Coons and directed by Mark Bergren, Dry Powder looks at three super-charged Wall Street financiers working at KMM Capital Management who are trying to clinch a buy-out of a California luggage manufacturer. The idea is to secure Landmark Luggage, and then gut and re-sell it for a handsome profit.

The problem for KMM is that Landmark’s owner and CEO, Jeff, is adamant that no jobs be sent out of the U.S., and he wants to keep the factory in Sacramento. Seth, a managing director at KMM, has been slowly and patiently reeling in Jeff with promises to expand Landmark’s position in the luggage market while retaining its staff and facilities.

Seth’s rival Jenny, the other managing director at KMM, has nothing but contempt for Seth’s hand-holding, and his promises. Seth is soft, witless and mediocre. So mediocre that he attended, as she puts it, that second-tier Ivy League university, Yale. Jenny, need we say, is a Harvard Business School grad. But Seth gives as good as he gets, calling Jenny “a token hire with sociopathic tendencies.”

Both Seth and Jenny are vying for the approval of their boss, Rick, the founder and president of KMM Capital, who is content to pit them against each other. There is more than a hint of sibling rivalry between Seth and Jenny. They bicker non-stop and jockey for the respect and loyalty of their very own Big Daddy, Rick.

When the play opens, Rick is reeling from embarrassing media coverage of his over-the-top, self-indulgent engagement party, which promises to do real damage to KMM just as the Landmark deal is in play. And he has his own anxieties and agendas, which he keeps from Seth and Jenny.

When Jeff comes to the city to sign the paperwork to hand over Landmark to KMM, still under the impression that KMM is going to honor his wishes, Seth has an attack of conscience, knowing that what Jeff wants does not at all square with KMM’s plans, which are to bring in a big Chinese investor.

Dry Powder, which premiered in New York in 2016, is a solid, smart, if unsurprising, take on cut-throat Wall Street capitalism and the Masters of the Universe who run it.

The characters, with some quirks here and there, are what you might expect. Ambitious, fueled by money, and not concerned about cutting ethical corners, which may well describe a healthy portion of the women and men working on Wall Street, but probably not every last one.

What’s missing from the play is something that director Adam McKay did terrifically well in The Big Short, the 2015 film about the 2008 meltdown — and that’s the high wire, high voltage thrill of predicting and manipulating which way the market’s going to go. Even as you deplore their machinations and can predict the dire consequences that they could not or would not see for themselves, you also want to see how they’re going to pull it off.

It’s there to a degree in Dry Powder, particularly in the character of Jenny, but the future of Landmark Luggage is not one to agitate the soul.

Maybe because it’s customizable luggage for the business class, maybe because we never hear from one of those workers who might lose his or her job, maybe because the characters exist in their own echo chamber: the stakes don’t seem high enough, although Burgess can deliver tart, pithy observation and some well-honed zingers.

The cast is strong. David Bonanno (Rick) is a Shaker Bridge veteran, having acted previously in Miracle on South Division Street, The Mystery of Love & Sex and The History of the World, among others. Bonanno has the right edge of anxiety, impatience and gnawing fear as Rick realizes everything can come tumbling down.

Matt Crabtree, as Seth, turns out to be the guy with a conscience underneath his bravado. Crabtree, making his third appearance at Shaker Bridge, is naturally funny as he squares off against Theresa Kloos’s Jenny, but he also shows Seth’s range of emotions and impulses as he realizes that maybe he’s not quite as hard-charging as he’s painted himself to be.

Paul West, as Jeff, the CEO of Landmark Luggage, is a deft foil to the snarling beasts at KMM. West, now in his fourth play at Shaker Bridge, nails what Easterners think of as a California vibe, sincere, low-key, easy-going, liberal in his impulses. But even Jeff isn’t necessarily what he seems to be.

It’s Jenny, played nimbly and amusingly by Kloos as a mix of ice, vinegar and battery acid, who is the heart of the play (she’s returning for a second Shaker Bridge production).

Here, Burgess delves into an interesting question. How much of Jenny’s sangfroid arises from her own nature, and how much from the need to be tougher, harder and quicker than the men around her? What price has she paid for being a woman in a field still largely dominated by men?

You may recoil from Jenny’s take-no-prisoners approach, but in her own way, she’s a truth-teller. Seth stretches and massages and delays the truth, but Jenny doesn’t hold back merely because it’s inconvenient. Kloos nails Jenny’s rapid-fire mind, but also her inability to feel and understand, and her lack of social acuity.

Bergren, who lives in Minneapolis and previously directed How the World Began for Shaker Bridge in 2015, keeps a smart pace throughout, and has an ear for the arcane lingo of the financiers, their rationalizations and explosions and, finally, their admission of the hard truths they can’t ignore. Still, intelligent though it is, Dry Powder isn’t quite large enough in the end to transcend its clever repartee.

Shaker Bridge Theatre’s production of Dry Powder runs through Feb. 24 at Whitney Hall in Enfield. For tickets and information go to shakerbridgetheatre.org, or call 603-448-3750.

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.