What makes us think that a play like Sarah Burgess’s Kings — now at the Public under the direction of Thomas “I directed Hamilton, maybe you’ve heard of it” Kail — is necessary? Is it the aggressive literal focus on contemporary politics? Is it the ultraspecialized milieu — here, the slick, scummy world of Washington lobbyists? Is it the researched-to-death dialogue about obscure but important policy points, designed to make liberal audiences feel both complacent (“Haha, yes, the country is fucked! I agree!”) and a little guilty (“Gosh, I should really be better informed about carried interest … I’ll do that tomorrow”)? Is it Oskar Eustis’s gushing artistic director note in the program, crediting Burgess with revealing “truths about the systems that shape our entire lives” and drawing our attention to the fact that the recent tax bill passed by Congress — which again preserved the carried-interest loophole — renders the Public’s production “so relevant”?
Whatever it is, I’m tired of it in my very bones. Too many American theaters are so caught up in the frenzied struggle for relevance that they’re failing to encourage and produce plays that contain anything immortal. They’re abandoning the infinite in their pursuit of the of-the-instant — and they call it courage when it’s a kind of cowardice. Kings, Cardinal, The Parisian Woman: These plays loudly announce their own significance but in fact possess a shelf life shorter than most brands of cereal. They sell themselves as Big and Meaningful while failing to expand or challenge their audiences (especially if these audiences are predominantly made up of well-off, progressive New Yorkers) in any real way. As I’ve noted before, at times they’re like episodes of a network TV show — Madam Secretary, say — onstage: smart enough but most likely gone from your head and heart by the time you’ve reached the subway or the bar. Worse, they can be useless echo chambers — safe little rooms where a group of similarly frustrated people can laugh as it’s implied that the president is a psychopath, comfortable in the fog of our mutually assured integrity.
Despite the fact that it’s stuffed with jargony, purposefully obfuscatory banter, Kings has a simple and familiar arc: new politician with an actual moral center takes on the system and loses. Nothing changes, except maybe the heart of one dejected, conflicted player in the noxious political game. That player is Kate (Gillian Jacobs, primarily known for her TV roles in Community, Girls, and Netflix’s Love). Kate’s a lobbyist. Her main function is to meet politicians at winey-diney fundraising events — at ski resorts and golf courses and fancy hotels — and to convince them to support legislation that will advance the interests of her clients in exchange for campaign dollars. “Part of my job is to help connect you with money, but only because of positions you already hold,” Kate tells Representative Sydney Millsap cannily. She’s good at her job: She respects the game and plays it well. Not so with Millsap, a freshly elected congresswoman from Texas committed to braving the swamp and serving her constituents. Millsap’s got some things going for her: She’s a gold-star widow, she’s “the first woman and the first person of color ever to represent your district” (she keeps being reminded obsequiously), and she’s fiery, honest, and quick. Twitter likes her. The Establishment does not.
As Millsap, Eisa Davis is by far the best thing in the play. She’s a smart, fluent, sharp-eyed actor who gives the rebellious congresswoman a sense of both backbone and cool relaxation. She doesn’t push, she’s comfortable in her own skin, she leads with her Texas friendliness and sincere home-city pride (as Kate starts to move hesitantly toward helping the idealistic politician, the pair often meet at Chili’s: it’s “a Dallas thing”), and you don’t realize she’s fighting you until she wins. But of course, she’ll never win big. Kate and her fellow lobbyist — and ex-girlfriend — Lauren (the curt, falsely smiling Aya Cash) can see from the beginning that Millsap has no idea, or at least no respect for, “how any of this works.” She may get a flurry of press for voting No on a bill that preserves the carried-interest loophole; she may decide to challenge incumbent Senator John McDowell, a bluff good ol’ boy and known friend to the lobbyists, and she may even beat him in the primary — but she’ll never actually take the Senate seat. Not against the special-interest money that will rise up against her in a corrupt tidal wave the minute she advances too far on the board.
So … what? What is Kings telling us that we don’t already know? What is it changing — if not in the world at large (that’s a big and arguably impossible ask), then at least in our perceptions or experience of it? What are we getting in the theater, starting at $65 a ticket, that we couldn’t get from the New York Times or The Daily Show or just generally being a semi-informed human being who struggles daily with the sociopolitical status quo? Well, we’re getting some characters in real human bodies, but only Davis’s Millsap achieves any real interest. Zach Grenier, though he’s the right type for McDowell, often feels weirdly shaky in the role. Cash is given a flatly unsympathetic character to work with, and Jacobs fails to make much of anything out of Kate. Kate’s supposed to attract us with her intelligence and plain-speaking despite her compromised ethics — not to mention by being the only character to undergo something akin to a transformation in the play — but Jacobs feels opaque and stiff. She can’t carry the show.
Nor can Kail’s attempts to liven things up with a series of borderline ridiculous transitions in which the LED wall and ceiling panels of Anna Louizos’s set flash in bright colors while club-like beats blare over the speakers and a bunch of stagehands shuffle furniture around in the dark. Are the transitions meant to wake us up between scenes? Why bother?
If I seem cruel to Kings, it’s because it doesn’t stand alone. It’s part of an epidemic in contemporary theater, a virus of insistent, self-righteous, moribund relevance at the expense of actual theatrical power. As big producers scrabble to sell tickets by advertising the art form’s urgency and necessity, we are being sold a bill of goods. Theater’s only necessary when it’s good — and even then the case is debatable. Some of the most powerful plays I’ve seen recently —Ballyturk, A Room in India, and the Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s fantastic Pursuit of Happiness come to mind — have achieved their resonance by questioning the very purpose and utility of art in a world as frequently terrible as our own. These plays have stared their own powerlessness in the face and somehow emerged more potent. But in this era of #NowMoreThanEver, we too often favor theater that demands we acknowledge how much it matters, even as it ends up not mattering at all.
Kings is at the Public Theater’s LuEsther Hall through April 1.