It doesn’t get much more political than lobbyists buttering up members of Congress and a neophyte from a purist flank attempting to “primary” an established senator. That’s the landscape in the 90-minute, four-character comedy “Kings” at Studio Theatre — yet “I don’t seek out political stuff,” Sarah Burgess said.
Instead, the Washington-raised playwright has sought out what she calls “subcultures” in her two New York-produced plays so far. “Dry Powder” probed the ethics of private equity with such convincing detail that Manhattan’s Public Theater produced it in 2016, giving Burgess her professional debut (stars no less than Claire Danes, Hank Azaria and John Krasinksi headlined).
“I’m obsessed with equity in a square way,” Burgess, 35, said from her home in New York. “It’s my relaxation to look at stocks.”
In the spring, the Public produced “Kings,” too, in which Burgess again shows a nose for writing about people at work in high-pressure situations. The play deals with two entrenched young lobbyists — both opportunistic, white and lesbian (they used to be involved) — and two politicians. Of the politicians, the newcomer is a groundbreaker: a black woman from a district in Texas. The veteran is a white male senator viewed as presidential timber.
The patter is fast, which makes sense for a writer who admires the breakneck irreverence of Armando Iannucci’s “Veep,” “In the Loop” and “The Death of Stalin.” “He writes about political figures with no respect, which I enjoy,” Burgess said.
The inside-the-Beltway mentality is not strange to her; Burgess grew up in Alexandria, and her parents were Naval officers. She left Washington for film school at New York University and said she never really studied theater. But she got hooked during a semester in London, watching Tom Stoppard’s heady “Jumpers,” a farce involving philosophers and acrobats. (“Jumpers” got its 1974 U.S. debut during a two-month stand at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House, which seems impossible for any play now.) The American Burgess took umbrage when an Englishwoman sniffed during the break, “You’re not getting any of this, are you?”
In fact, for Burgess, language is as much of a driver as issues. “I find arguments funny,” she said. She confesses to periods of obsession with James Joyce and David Foster Wallace.
“I know I have an exceedingly high tolerance for technical language,” Burgess concedes, asked how much inside baseball is too much. “I like the idea of dropping audiences into something where they’re not going to understand every phrase. I like the challenge of that, and rendering people in their workplace as they would talk to each other. I think I’ve been testing the limits a bit.”
That’s certainly the angle with “Kings,” as lobbyists and elected officials verbally knife one another over who will take a meeting with whom. Finding the right words for the layers of political life in Washington may fascinate her now, but the reality of government life eluded her as she grew up here.
“As a kid — and even in high school at West Potomac — I didn’t realize the adult culture of D.C.,” Burgess recalls. “When a new president comes in, people feel the changes at the agencies. Somebody’s neighbor at the FDA has to deal with something he didn’t have to deal with before. It’s a different kind of lived experience.”
There may be another play to form a trilogy with “Kings” and “Dry Powder,” although as “Kings” prepared to open at Studio last weekend, Burgess was jetting to Los Angeles to discuss possible screen projects. What comes next won’t necessarily have a political thrust.
“It is an interesting time, and a tricky time, to write about that stuff,” she said. “Politics is sort of central to our entertainment now — real politics. It feels like an inflamed moment. It’s hard to think clearly about politics itself right now.”
But the path she’s forged may keep leading her there anyway. “I try to write about people who have a lot of power,” Burgess said, “and how they feel about themselves.”
Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300 or studiotheatre.org
Dates: Through Jan. 6