The High Drama in High Finance – Wall Street Journal
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The data-driven world of private equity may not be everyone’s idea of juicy stage fodder. But for playwright Sarah Burgess, it is the stuff of high drama.
Her play “Dry Powder,” on stage at the Public Theater until May 1, tells the story of a fictional private-equity firm, KMM Capital Management, reeling from a public-relations debacle. After its founder threw an extravagant party the same week the firm forced layoffs at a grocery chain in its portfolio, optics are ugly and investors are spooked.
The firm’s salvation could come through the acquisition of a struggling luggage company. But that decision turns out to be complicated, both financially and morally.
This is the first produced play for Ms. Burgess, 33 years old, who came to the topic after years as an SAT and GMAT tutor with a fondness for math. Co-winner of the 2016 Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award for emerging playwrights, she developed a love of theater through an appreciation of Stephen Sondheim’s music—and when she found that the stage, unlike TV, allowed her to write her favorite kind of dialogue-heavy scenes.
For actor Hank Azaria, who plays KMM’s founder, internalizing the dialogue was made easy, he said, by the way the script ties his character’s personal life and reputation to the terms of the deal.
“What Sarah did so well is make a genuine emotional context for this, with real stakes,” Mr. Azaria said.
The cast also stars John Krasinski and Claire Danes as sparring KMM partners and Sanjit De Silva as the head of the luggage company.
Thomas Kail, director of the play, decided on a spare set comprising a few simple boxes. That way, he said, the dialogue could take center stage, showcasing both the realism—and the theatricality—of a private-equity transaction.
“There are very strong points of view crashing into each other, and that inherently brings comedy and drama,” Mr. Kail said.
Ms. Burgess discussed the inspiration for the play and her views on the world of finance with The Wall Street Journal:
Why did you decide to write about finance?
I got interested in private equity because it has this sort of mystique. And when Mitt Romney ran for president in 2012, his time at Bain Capital became this point of contention and a topic in the media.
There was a piece I’ve read like seven times now about Romney’s time at Bain Capital and a buyout of this company called Dade, some kind of medical company. It just sounded so fascinating. And then I do like specialized terminology—perhaps too much.
What attracts you to that kind of insider jargon?
My parents were in the military and the military has so many ridiculous acronyms and terms that I didn’t understand. Trying to write a play where people speak in that way, but where it does not exclude the audience, was an interesting challenge.
The dialogue includes references to LOIs (letters of intent), LPs (limited partners) and even “dry powder” itself. How did you get the language down?
Some deeper reading exposed me to some terminology. And, on YouTube there are Wharton lectures about private equity.
There was also a phase where I was obsessed. If I was at an event or I heard somebody works in finance, I would ask people questions about detailed private-equity things and they’d be like, “I don’t know.”
Then I met a girlfriend of a friend who really did work in private equity. We had a meeting at a coffee shop and she flagged all these things in the play, and she’d run the numbers on some of the math. So she helped point out things that were wrong. One time, for example, I stupidly misused the word revenue, a really basic thing.
How do you make this play understandable for all audiences?
The goal was that you can maybe drop people into this room where Hank and John and Claire’s characters can all speak this language to each other and hopefully you get what’s happening because the characters are fairly stark.
And the situation is simple: It’s deciding whether or not to buy something. And then after it becomes ‘Do we want to buy it?’ it’s ‘Well, what do we want to do with it after we buy it?’ It’s hopefully a simple story, so people can bear the language.
A big focus of this play is on how much money the firm and various characters can make. Are these characters meant to be viewed as greedy or villainous?
The word greed never comes to mind, because I think I do take for granted that many people choose careers because they want to accumulate capital. And that’s not something we really judge or have a problem with. And I’m a playwright so obviously I have, perhaps idiotically, not done that. It’s like I have a job from the 1500s, you know? I mostly just want people to think it’s funny, and to enjoy being immersed in a certainly dramatized extreme of this world.
The High Drama in High Finance – Wall Street Journal}