Greed is Good, in Dry Powder

Sarah Burgess' Mamet-like play about financial markets (at Aurora Theatre through July 29) centers on a woman for whom "outthinking any potential adversary and having power over them turns her on."

From left to right: Aldo Billingslea, Emily Jeanne Brown, Kevin Kemp and Jeremy Kahn in Sarah Burgess’s Dry Powder. (David Allen)

Instead of an angel and a devil sitting on either side of his broad shoulders, Rick (Aldo Billingslea) has two sympathetic devils. Jenny (Emily Jeanne Brown) and Seth (Jeremy Kahn) are the two principals at his New York hedge fund. He runs the firm based on their differing skill sets and his intuition, and each competes for his attention.

Jenny is a genius at math and fact-checking the details of a deal. Seth’s a people person, in that he knows how to manipulate them. (He’s also better at drumming up new business.) Both are overachievers who bicker like siblings. But they complement each other and help Rick on his life’s quest to earn more money than God. Collectively, they lack empathy for anyone outside of their sphere of influence.

In Dry Powder, through July 29 at Aurora Theatre, Sarah Burgess has written a morality play for characters without any discernible morals. Of the three leads, Brown has the plum role. Her character is liberated from having to check herself from political correctness. Jenny’s that rare bird, a female antihero who’s hostile to intimacy, to caretaking, to any genuine human connection. She’s adept at crunching the numbers but she also understands the big picture, of what those numbers imply and actually mean. And despite Seth’s claim otherwise, Jenny is always the smartest person in the room.

(Left) Emily Jeanne Brown and (right) Jeremy Kahn in Sarah Burgess’s Dry Powder. (David Allen)

We find out next to nothing about her personal life — in part because she doesn’t have one, and because, for the purposes of the play, it’s irrelevant. Dry Powder is a workplace melodrama, so the playwright hasn’t equipped Jenny with ordinary domestic dissatisfactions like being unhappy with her parents or expressing a sentimental need for love or companionship. Brown’s monologues are so full of chilling invectives that any actor in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross could envy them. But greed doesn’t seem to be motivating her. She doesn’t talk about the money she earns for the firm or what she can buy with the money in her bank account. For her, outthinking any potential adversary and having power over them turns her on. Brown is sensational at portraying a driven, unsympathetic woman who uses her knowledge and willpower to bend the financial markets to benefit her firm.

Jenny’s challenge in Dry Powder is to vet Seth’s latest deal to acquire Jeff’s (Kevin Kemp) luggage company in California. She must determine the company’s viability and present her findings to Rick. After Jenny and her analysts finalize their research, she presents a plan that counters Seth’s original one, arguing that it will give the firm higher returns with less risk. The catch is that her plan will require layoffs. Jeff needs the influx of capital but in his meetings with Seth he’s stipulated that he won’t accept any layoffs. It’s Seth then, not Jenny, who questions the deal. Seth, the owner of bespoke suits and a yacht, who has spent months getting to know Jeff, massaging the deal, feels caught between a multimillion-dollar paycheck and the idea that hundreds of people will lose their jobs if it goes through.

Whatever qualms Seth may have about the deal, he bears them lightly, without sweating too much or communicating any signs of palpable distress. Burgess doesn’t portray any of her characters as good or caring individuals. They’re self-interested sharks, at the top of the food chain, in the same stratosphere as the Wall Street players in movies like Margin Call (2014) or The Big Short (2015). What makes her play unique is that a woman is the linchpin. Jenny is neither condescended to or distrusted because of her gender. Rick respects her abilities, as does Seth, begrudgingly.

Meera Menon’s Equity (2016) did have a woman as a Wall Street protagonist but Dry Powder omits that film’s confrontation with the law. By staying away from that familiar scenario, Burgess implies that these power players no longer have any ethics to worry themselves about. They’ve attained their power and status by evolving beyond them. Jenny, certainly, is merciless when she encounters anyone less intelligent or less fortunate than she is. When someone finds faults with her solitary life she retorts, “I have a hawk on my shoulder. I’m not alone.” It’s the hunt that excites her, and catching all of the world’s most vulnerable prey.

Dry Powder, through July 29, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. $33-$65; 510-843-3822 or auoratheatre.org.

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