BWW Review: Political Play KINGS at South Coast Rep Exposes the Influence of Lobbyists
As our divided country hurtles towards the all-important mid-term elections, it is becoming increasingly harder not to feel even a bit disenchanted with it all, as we surrender to the feeling that our political system seems to be unfairly rigged---at least in favor of those that already have a tremendous amount of power and are wiling to do (and say) almost anything to hold on to it, thereby ensuring that they do.
Almost every day as we watch an endless cycle of news reports and political ads, we learn more about how much influence corporations and other money-backed groups have in favor of or against candidates and incumbents---and how much of a key difference they have in influencing a winning or losing campaign.
It seems much harder to separate fiction from reality these days because things have... well... really gone berserk. There's even more excessive gerrymandering. There's the increased frequency of accusations of voter suppression. There are even sustained allegations that a foreign government has---and is---actively meddling with our elections.
And right smack at the center of the action are people who call themselves lobbyists---people who are hired (and are paid handsomely) by a business, an industry, or a cause to persuade government officials or even promising electoral candidates to support that specific business, industry, or cause that employ them. Their job is, in a way, a type of loud, incessant advocacy that finds them attempting to influence the decisions of policy makers---which often comes in the form of a healthy donation to that policy maker's election campaign.
So when fresh candidates arrive at the scene offering hope, change, and all those other buzzwords pissed off voters clamor for, many of us are crossing our fingers that this person might be the right one to root for---especially when it looks like they can't be bought by "special interest" money these lobbyists are dangling in front of them.
This is the sphere that surrounds Sarah Burgess' timely new play KINGS, which premiered earlier this year at The Public Theatre in New York and is now continuing its West Coast Premiere performances at Orange County's South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through November 10---yes, just as the midterms are heating up.
Interesting, intriguing, but slightly too tame and a bit of a promising work-in progress, the play basically presents what most of us already know about the lobby-friendly political arena: even if you're a political outsider with a spotless record, actual positive convictions for the greater good, and even a moral line you're unwilling to cross, if you're someone resistant to play the Washington "game," then it's going to be decidedly harder to get yourself elected.
That is exactly the lesson newly-elected Sydney Millsap (an excellent Tracey A. Leigh) is finding to be a challenge, as she carefully (but stubbornly) navigates her way through the harsh environment she was so adamant to clean up and make better when she surprisingly wins a seat in the House of Representatives. Well, no good deed goes unpunished, indeed.
After winning a special election to become the first female person of color to be a Representative of her Texas district, Sydney is now having some slight difficultly making in-roads in her ambitious pursuit of a Senate seat, despite being the kind of fresh political newbie many hopeful voters---at least the Blue kind (though her actual affiliation is never uttered)---may feel is the right person to represent that state's constituents.
She, of course, sounds like a rare unicorn in the world of red Texas politics: an idealist and a realist at the same time. Unlike most politicians, she is honest to a fault---so much so that she's unafraid to lose supporters even if it means telling truths that are unpopular or that they may not want to hear. In a short timespan, Sydney has become the kind of political darling many want to root for: truthful, ethical and fair. Not only is she a Gold Star widow, she went from being the smartest accountant at the office one day to being a champion policy scholar with real tangible ideas to fix problems ailing her home state overnight. Her goals are certainly admirable, if naively too pie-in-the-sky for a place like DC.
But for lobbyists wanting to woo her, she's a tough nut to crack. Even though Sydney shows up at these fundraiser events as her Party probably dictates (we even see her make "humiliating" phone calls asking for donations), she's unwilling to be "bought" by the entities wiling to help her secure a win. She will happily take the money, she says, but isn't willing to play along and compromise her beliefs or her voting record for the sake of a lobbying group's generosity. That sounds marvelous, but, of course, in the real world---does that rigid stance make you electable?
That's the reason why two operatives---Kate (Jules Willcox), a tenacious medical industry lobbyist, and Lauren (Paige Lindsey White), a party fundraising strategist---are both perplexed and fascinated by her, as they wait downstairs at a hotel lobby, hoping for a meet-and-greet with the seemingly uncompromising Representative who didn't even bother leaving her hotel room for her own event.
Lauren, for her part, does her best to steer Sydney towards the light, but is shocked by Sydney's audacious penchant for not compromising her principles. It's no wonder that Lauren prefers to work with participating politicians like seasoned Senior Senator John McDowell (Richard Doyle, a perfect curmudgeon), a man so in-tune and savvy with how the political playbook works after years of experience, that he's often one or two steps prepared in anticipation for what's needed of him. He's definitely used to compromising for the sake of the wants of his very generous donors, and in turn gets to reap the rewards for his, um, "efforts" reflected by his better-than-average lifestyle.
Kate, meanwhile, is perhaps moved by Sydney's stance (a stance, let's not forget, got her elected to the House), and so is still determined to help the resistant Sydney to open her eyes to the usefulness of siding with the companies and factions Kate represents. In a way, Kate, deep down, agrees with a lot of what Sydney stands for, which is why she is so willing to help her and see her succeed. Kate, in no uncertain terms, can get Sydney anything she wants... all she has to do is take a meeting.
But for Sydney, the mere thought of getting monetary assistance in exchange for her promises is still a slippery slope to navigate. Thus, the frustrating conundrum: how does a lobbyist convince a candidate they believe in that in order to get further ahead and have a better shot at winning, that the candidate has to swallow their pride and accept some "help?"
Filled with plenty of Washington political-insider dialogue and Civics 101-level info that is a great intro to the world of political lobbyists---and the operatives that work with them---KINGS is certainly an of-the-moment play that speaks on the power and influence of the people in this profession, and why they are so much more in charge of the policies that govern our day-to-day than we would probably like to admit. When was the last time we all took the time to look up the voting record of our elected officials and see who funds their campaign coffers? In that sense, KINGS keeps you intrigued, and Burgess' talkative script under the direction of Dámaso Rodríguez keeps that theme top of mind even as the hard stops of set changes puts a temporary pause on the continuous pacing.
Beyond that, though, the play---which unfolds in a series of tonally straightforward vignettes that neither tip the scale to excitable or emotionally searing---presents work-in-progress characters that are all in dizzying flux, as if they're all just gasping for air in an environment that they've all chosen to participate in willingly, but talk defensively about all the shitty things involved with their respective jobs. It's fascinating to a point, but then it just becomes a play that feels like a blueprint for a much more structurally sound narrative. Even more disheartening: it definitively kills any hope you may have had that's ignited by a character teased to be this anti-establishment politician of our 2018 dreams.
Not surprisingly, It's hard to really side with or root for many of the characters' unexciting journeys, except perhaps, yes, Sydney's. She is played with an evenly balanced resonance by Leigh that extends her idealism beyond what she says out loud and in private conversations. Her character may be filled with facts and figures and "too honest" rhetoric we wish most politicians would actually have the cojonés to say out loud, but she also lets out moments that show a woman who truly wants to do right in a world not willing to let her do that without some kind of hypocritical act involved. Sometimes it's a mere look on Leigh's face that speaks volumes for her character, too.
She is, naturally, the compelling star of the play's best and most enjoyable scene that has Leigh's Sydney in a head-to-head political debate with Doyle's Sen. McDowell. The fiery back-and-forth---which finally displays in full view Sydney's knack for connecting with voters on all fronts---gives the play a needed jolt from all the informative but dry insider talk. Not surprisingly, the exchange between these two Texas Senate hopefuls brings to mind---at least partially for me while watching the play---the same kind of fiery debating we've witnessed between two current, real-life Texas Senate hopefuls U.S. Representative Beto O'Rourke and Sen. Ted Cruz.
Unfortunately the character of Sydney seems to fade to a whimper in favor of the more overly-confident but emotionally vacant characters Lauren and Kate, which, in fairness, were both well-played by White and Willcox, respectively. Both characters, savvy and empowered as they are, deserved meatier backstories and relatable motivations beyond the essays they spout. Doyle---the sole male in the cast---lucks out by playing a purposely comical character in Sen. McDowell, a man that comes in to represent his generational and gendered ilk, earn some well-deserved laughs (and audience disgust), then walks out of the scene after a job well done. A surface buffoon, maybe, but underneath that outer layer, Doyle gives the old Senator a knowing intelligence garnered by decades of being a team player, fully cognizant of how to make the system work for his benefit, too.
But the biggest surprise for me, actually, is that SCR's production of KINGS is presented in the larger main Segerstrom stage; it should have swapped places with the just-closed VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE which was mounted on the smaller Argyros stage. The main stage seems too much of a footprint for a play that doesn't really need it, though designer Efren Delgadillo, Jr.'s multiple sets---ranging from a luxe hotel lobby in Vail to a Chili's restaurant---look effectively grand and posh with its masculine lines and colors in its present scale, beautifully enhanced by Peter Maradudin's lighting. In addition, Leah Piehl's costumes---mostly power suits and chic clothes with clean lines---are also well paired with their respective characters.
And speaking of Chili's restaurant... just curious: was there a Chili's lobbying group that paid to be name-dropped and featured so prominently in this play? Admittedly, it is quite a funny and pleasantly unexpected running gag in KINGS that I enjoyed.
Overall, KINGS is a very promising new play with lots of room for improvement (at 95 minutes with no intermission, there's definitely room), particularly in fleshing out its characters and showing them as people that are more than just their jobs. While government policy and political machination nerds will salivate at the matter-of-fact minutia discussed in the play, this comedic-drama could use a bit more excitement and palpable highs and lows to keep remaining audience members similarly invested in the totality of its info-laden narrative. In its current state, KINGS already has great bones; all it needs is a bit more refining in its illustration of how politics is no longer the art of the possible, but the art of the well-funded pocket.
Photos by Debora Robinson for South Coast Repertory.
The West Coast Premiere of Sarah Burgess' play KINGS continues at South Coast Repertory through November 10, 2018. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.
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