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On Theater: ‘Kings’ goes behind the political scenes

On Theater: ‘Kings’ goes behind the political scenes
Tracey A. Leigh is a rookie representative and Jules Willcox is a lobbyist in the Sarah Burgess play “Kings,” which runs through Nov. 10 at South Coast Repertory. (Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR)

When Jesse Unruh famously observed that “money is the mother’s milk of politics,” he could be credited as an inspiration for Sarah Burgess’s dramatic comedy “Kings,” the current production at South Coast Repertory.

“Kings” is all about the greenbacks and how they figure into the political landscape. Issues also emerge, and eventually they’re what keep the production on its feet as two legislators, a veteran and a novice, tangle in the quest for support.

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Burgess initially builds her play around two lobbyists, both young and female, who play the game from differing perspectives. They are interesting, but hardly arresting, and the story lags until the members of Congress enter the picture.

Paige Lindsey White is the sparkling Lauren, a longtime confidante of a powerful Texas senator with presidential ambitions. Jules Willcox enacts the comparatively drab Kate, who bonds with the newcomer congresswoman. Both are convincing but hardly inspirational.

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That quality comes with the arrival of Tracey A. Leigh as the rookie representative with a strong B.S. monitor, who’ll accept donations but won’t be bought. Leigh delivers a sharp, snappy performance as a newly minted politician with untainted moral values.

The heavy lifting in “Kings” is provided by Richard Doyle, an SCR founding artist who’s been with the company since it began in the mid-1960s and hasn’t lost his touch as an engaging actor. Doyle shakes things up royally as the veteran senator who wants to be president but who faces a potentially career-ending reelection bid.

When the two legislators square off in a televised debate, the play hits its peak as Doyle and Leigh fight tooth and nail, each with a career at stake. Almost as satisfying is their convivial conversation in a cocktail lounge following the election.

Director Dámaso Rodríguez keeps the action running smoothly through innumerable scenic transitions, which are masterfully executed by set designer Efren Delgadillo Jr. Peter Maradudin's lighting effects play a major role in the play’s effectiveness.

“Kings” may lean a little too heavily on political back channels, and thus may prove a bit chatty, but its performers deliver handily in this topical treatise on ambition and governance at South Coast Repertory.

Tom Titus reviews local theater.

IF YOU GO

What: “Kings”

Where: South Coast Repertory, 650 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Nightly except Mondays at varying curtain times through Nov. 10

Cost: $21 to $85

Call: (714) 708-5555

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