High finance delivers outsized rewards to outsized personalities. In Dry Powder, playwright Sarah Burgess’s sizzling exploration of private equity markets, she plumbs the aspirations and conflicts that drive its players. A single transaction – the leveraged buyout of a suitcase manufacturer, of all things, represents the field of combat. But don’t despair if you lack knowledge about this kind of dealing. All will be illuminated, and matters of trust, greed, and immorality will be laid bare.
Raw meat capitalism, evidenced by buyouts, mergers and such, represents an elevated form of social Darwinism. Unfettered, these dealings leave social justice in shambles, where compassion for the individual and sense of community play no role. Layoffs are abstract numbers, not real people or the consequences to schools and towns. Ironically, the financial aspects of these deals yield great payoffs to the facilitators, yet they add no economic value per se. However, they often dramatically redistribute wealth in favor of the wealthy.
Aldo Billingslea plays Rick, a bare-knuckles deal doer and the CEO of KMM Capital Management, which has just suffered a PR disaster with bad press and demonstrations. Rick’s engagement party of legendary extravagance coincided with his forcing layoffs at a national retailer that KMM controls. What to do? Laser-fixed on the bottom line, Rick also craves recognition for respectability. Evidence his funding a school in Bali – even if the amount contributed is a pittance compared to his take from the firm.
In management style, Rick seems to have adopted the adage of William Wrigley, Jr., pitting executives against one another. The king of chewing gum noted that if you have two subordinates who agree, then one of them is not needed. Rick can depend on his two lieutenants Seth and Jenny to disagree. They have been cohorts for over a decade, yet are as different as chalk and cheese and are constantly at each other’s throats.
Jeremy Kahn is Seth, who exhibits real life beyond work and some degree of humanity. He proposes a Trumpian diversion to combat the PR problem, and one that is compatible with Seth’s values. KMM should quickly conclude the Landmark Luggage deal, broadcasting the assurance that the business will be expanded with new product lines and that American jobs will be saved. Rick is enthused since the deal looks profitable as well, but he enlists loner and contrarian Jenny, played by an ice cold Emily Jeanne Brown, to conduct analysis that assumes they move production offshore. Jenny crunches numbers with the best of them and possesses nary a sympathetic bone in her body. Rick will have to reconcile the different positions of his most important human assets along with the needs of Landmark’s CEO, who expects to stay on after the buyout.
For having no experience in the private equity finance industry, Burgess acquits herself well in her script, with a keen sense of the industry’s ethos, as well as its jargon and its patter. The greed, arrogance, and competitiveness in the industry are legend, but she drapes these attributes on characters that talk the talk and walk the walk.
But two other elements are key to this extremely funny and engaging drama. One has to do with the universality of situational ethics, notably, “where you stand depends on where you sit.” As a function of what kind of jobs they have, it is often easy to predict where otherwise upstanding people have lapses in ethics. Think about what people in the pharmaceutical industry will justify about their practices that others find unscrupulous. What about the tobacco business, or the time share business, or construction, and so on? Also their standards may change when faced with situations that effect their livelihood. As Rick will find out, it’s easy to be principled when all is going well.
The other issue in Dry Powder is generic but has special relevance to finance. In the past, the mantra among deal doers in finance was “my word is my bond.” But today, it is “get it in writing.” A famous real world example was the verbal agreement of energy giants British Petroleum (BP) and Standard Oil of Ohio (Sohio) to a merger as equals, which influenced the US Government approving the merger. But nuances in the agreement didn’t affirm this. When BP officials were asked after the signing how to pronounce the combined BP-Sohio, the answer was “It’s simply BP. Sohio is silent.” And so it was that Sohio and its management were largely obliterated.
In addition to a taut and lively script that provides some interesting twists and turns, director Jennifer King guides an austere but highly effective production in which the talk does the talking. Billingslea, Kahn, Brown, and Kevin Kemp as the Landmark CEO totally convince and excel in portraying these tightly-wound players, yielding a compelling outcome.
Dry Powder by Sarah Burgess is produced by Aurora Theatre and plays on their stage at 2081 Addison St., Berkeley, CA through July 22, 2018.