If PBS had produced the HBO series Veep, it would have looked and sounded like Sarah Burgess’ Kings. Her play is an earnest political satire that glances at the characters’ neuroses but turns away from the reasons behind their scabrous psychologies. Their origin stories are included as background noise. The playwright tells us that the recently elected congresswoman Sam Jackson (Sydney Millsap) is a war widow. And that the two predatory lobbyists who encircle her — Kate (Elissa Beth Stebbins) and Lauren (Sarah Mitchell) — used to be lovers. For Burgess these limited biographies suggest that corporate lobbyists are, as Lady Gaga once proclaimed, born that way. Conversely, politicians are easily persuaded (with bribes) to become their dupes and pawns.
In this fictional world that runs exactly parallel to our own, Kate and Lauren hunt down new members of Congress the way that lionesses pounce upon weak-kneed wildebeest. Sam appears to be principled, a sure sign that she’ll be too naive to resist their approach. Of the two, Lauren is the apex lobbyist. She’s posed on the cover of a prestigious Washington, D.C. magazine with her wife. And she more than capably handles Senator John McDowell (Don Wood), who’s positioned to become a presidential candidate in the coming election. Where Lauren’s focus is on power and money, Kate’s is on the realpolitik of healthcare reform. She can get a bill passed that does some good for the public even though her work is routinely compromised by greed.
Apart from an extinguished romance, what they share is a long-lived career on Capitol Hill. They’ve watched senators and congresspeople come and go. Their worldview is seldom challenged. Lauren dominates the soft-minded and the soft-willed. Actual legislative change genuflects to the soundbite. Of the four characters, she’s most like Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ self-involved Vice President Selina Meyer. As Lauren, Mitchell’s mouth is forever turned down into the sourest of frowns. She is shocked by and disapproves of everyone who stands in her way.
When Kate chats with Sam at a political event in Aspen, they don’t hit it off. Kate suggests that she and the congresswoman form a partnership, with an implied, “Quid pro quo, Clarice.” Sam insists that she won’t let go of her principled approach to working in government. As Burgess writes the character, both her race — she’s a woman of color — and the loss of her husband are meant to inform her attitudes. But as a person, Sam doesn’t add up to much more than a series of those attitudes. Millsap has been given the character’s motivations without a plot that makes use of them. In a debate with Senator McDowell, he gets lost in his oft-repeated rhetoric and makes a blunder by suggesting she hasn’t sacrificed anything for her country. But that idea, along with the importance of her racial identity, is jettisoned when it could have been expanded upon and made central to her story, to personalize it.
Sam asks Kate more than once to drop her lobbyist’s fake façade. She wants an authentic connection in a business where none can be found. Kate knows better than to reveal her cards, but something about their interaction gets past her defenses. Sam wonders out loud if being a lobbyist, paying lip service to healthcare, is what Kate dreamed of for her professional life. Stebbins capitalizes on playing her character’s confidence and her growing uncertainty. As long as Lauren’s at the top of her game, she won’t need to change. And Sam, who’s not equipped to play the game, doesn’t need to change either. Her career in politics may turn out to be short-lived but she’ll be fine in civilian life.
At the start of Kings, Kate has her feet firmly planted in an artificial heaven. She’s smart, good at what she does and enjoys the perks (trips to Aspen and Miami!). But in each scene she’s in, Stebbins’ body registers and then communicates Kate’s growing sense of doubt both to herself and to the audience. Again, Burgess tells us little about her past but Stebbins is an expert at relaying information about Kate in the tone of her voice or the petulant turn of her head. But her performance often gets lost or diluted in the staging of the play. Joanie McBrien, who directed, isn’t helped by the cavernous set design where the actors never deliver their lines in the right place to fully occupy the space. The emotional life of Kings should be intense, if not claustrophobic, but instead feels mild. Stebbins, at her best, helps us understand what’s at stake for Kate’s moral life and why the crown, after all that effort, isn’t worth having.
Kings, through June 22, at Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. $7–$35; 510-841-6500 or shotgunplayers.org