Money talks, and before an election it seems to shout.
Television ads, robocalls, mailers, social media campaigns — they’re unavoidable at the moment, and they’re just the tip of the proverbial iceberg of big money in politics.
Emerging playwright Sarah Burgess takes on the topic in a new play, “Kings,” which South Coast Repertory is presenting on its main stage in Costa Mesa.
The premise is terrific. Just elected to Congress, a political novice vows to stay true to her and her constituents’ beliefs — defying her party’s bloc, if necessary — and, similarly, steering clear of campaign money with strings attached.
Hmm. Wonder how that will turn out?
SCR has assembled a terrific artistic team and given the show this timely production slot. The script, though, is too coldly wonkish. Engage our minds — yes, please, but you’ll soon lose us if you don’t also capture our hearts.
Like her central character, Burgess is a newcomer. She vaulted from unknown to blazing discovery with a different story about obscene amounts of money: “Dry Powder,” set in the world of private equity. It caught the eye of Oskar Eustis, leader of New York’s Public Theater, who took a flier on the then-unproduced writer and scheduled her drama for a 2016 spring production directed by “Hamilton’s” Thomas Kail and a cast led by Claire Danes, John Krasinski and Hank Azaria.
“Kings” was also introduced by the Public with Kail directing. That happened in February. SCR’s staging is just the play’s second iteration.
As her central character and principal spokeswoman, the Brooklyn, N.Y., based writer has devised U.S. Rep. Sydney Millsap, an oil-industry accountant, military widow and mom elected to serve suburban Dallas-Fort Worth. Her party affiliation is left unsaid, inviting viewers of all political persuasions to read her behavior however they wish.
We are introduced to her at a political fundraiser in Vail, Colo., where two female lobbyists are waiting to introduce themselves. Within moments of meeting the first she is bluntly saying that the fundraising her party requires of her is “humiliating. ... It’s a disgrace.”
The congresswoman is given to such directness, which Tracey A. Leigh delivers with wonderful crispness. She means to get things done, no falseness, no compromises. She is particularly disdainful of anyone who begins by congratulating her for being the first woman and first person of color elected from her district because she sees it for the empty flattery that it is.
Burgess has written the lobbyists to be cracklingly smart and persuasively spoken, and Jules Willcox and Paige Lindsey White lend the roles considerable grit and conviction, but it’s not enough to make these broadly drawn types quite human.
It’s terrific to encounter a Washington tale that focuses on powerful women. As for the old boys’ club, it is reduced here to a single boy. He is a folksy but establishment-entrenched senator insistent that Millsap toe party lines. SCR stalwart Richard Doyle, pro that he is, makes the guy not just warm but almost lovable — more depth than is written in.
Scenic designer Efren Delgadillo Jr. delivers appropriately wood-paneled, generically luxurious surroundings to suggest the moneyed world in which backroom deals occur, and costume designer Leah Piehl could open a couture shop based on the dramatically cut dresses she has created for the more fee-besotted lobbyist.
One of the region’s top directors, Dámaso Rodríguez, is at the helm. You will remember him as a co-founder of L.A.’s Furious Theatre; he’s now artistic director of Portland, Ore.’s, Artists Repertory Theatre. He builds momentum toward the story’s zingers, but there is only so much propulsion possible in material mired in PACs and policy groups, as well as such hammering overstatement as: “I’m sure she’s smart for someone who makes a living by attaching herself to the government like a parasite.” Not helping matters: This talky play is difficult to hear in the big auditorium. (SCR’s smaller theater would have been more hospitable.)
Burgess has studied her topic well. But “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” — or, rather, “Mrs.” — this is not.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; ends Nov. 10
Info: (714) 708-5555, www.scr.org
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes; no intermission