And finally, reflect on the fact that Sarah Burgess doesn't have to imagine any of this.
Her new play, "Dry Powder," set in the offices of a Manhattan private equity firm, is a marquee attraction this spring at the Public Theater. Chosen by artistic director Oskar Eustis from the piles of unproduced scripts he reads each year, the play has been directed by none other than Thomas Kail, who shepherded to Broadway a little property by the title of "Hamilton." And get this: the actors populating her story of soulless dealmakers who ruminate over buying a company and shipping its manufacturing operations overseas include "Homeland's" Claire Danes, "The Office's" John Krasinski and "The Simpsons' " Hank Azaria.
Though she projects an air of placid nonchalance, no one in actuality is more gobsmacked by the turn of events than this daughter of naval officers, who was born in Bethesda, raised in part in Alexandria, and graduated from West Potomac High School there. For "Dry Powder" has propelled Burgess into the rarefied ranks of dramatists who break through in some of the highest-profile circumstances possible. And given the profiles of those other participants, she also has on her hands a production running through May 1 that has been sold out almost from the get-go.
"It's my first production, period," Burgess says, sitting recently in the Public's second-floor bar and restaurant, the Library, which is otherwise empty at this hour of the morning. "So I actually have nothing to compare it with! There are many things about this that are not typical for a first-time writer."
To which Eustis might respond that there is nothing typical about Burgess, either. "For me, it happens once a decade," Eustis explains in a separate interview. "I read her play and immediately said, 'We're producing this.' "
Since the milieu of the 90-minute play is the insular world of private equity, with its own mores and vocabulary, Eustis naturally concluded Burgess had first-hand knowledge of it. "My assumption was she had worked on Wall Street," he says, "because she had an absolutely extraordinary ear. She captures the language of that world perfectly."
Worked on Wall Street? Wrong! After finishing a degree in film making at New York University in the mid-2000s, Burgess stayed on in New York City, earning her keep as a tutor for those preparing to take their graduate school admissions tests. (It was during a college semester in London, and a course that required her to go to the theater there, that her interests began to segue from a passion for Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee to one for writing plays.)
Several of her test-prep students worked at investment firms like Goldman Sachs. That, she says, was her first exposure to the universe of traders and hedge funds. "I was fascinated by the culture of the place," she says, explaining that the idea of moral responsibility and the human consequences of the bankers' complex, abstract business transactions seemed vibrant ones for a play. In the cause of furthering her research, she says, she asked her father to make her a Christmas present of "Barbarians at the Gate," the story of the 1988 leveraged buyout and subsequent collapse of RJR Nabisco.
"If the question of the best man wins — if that's such a central value, how do you reconcile that with concern for people who are going to be put in serious trouble by these actions?" Burgess observes. This issue coalesces in "Dry Powder" — a term referring to a firm's monetary reserves to cover future deals — around the clash between two go-getting partners in the equity firm, Danes's Jenny and Krasinski's Seth, over how much to fret about the fate of the American workers in the luggage company they're about to buy. (Azaria plays the firm's lead partner, Rick.)
Although Burgess had been performing all the tasks that young playwrights do — organizing readings, participating in playwriting groups — on the arduous road to securing a first production, she was shocked by the offer from Eustis. "I was in a daze," she says. "I think I borrowed a cigarette from someone and sat on a bench." As the high-powered creative team took shape, Eustis himself had some worries, about whether the writer could withstand the pressure of a rehearsal room in which she was the least experienced and known.
"I actually spoke to her about it," Eustis says. "I told her, 'We've got to be sure that just because you're surrounded by lovely, famous people, you still have to stick up for your play.' " It turned out not to be a problem. "She just isn't that intimidate-able," the artistic director asserts.
"Dry Powder" opened to mixed but encouraging reviews, and Burgess, who's already working on a play about the next world she wants to infiltrate dramatically — that of Washington lobbyists — seems to feel nothing but gratitude for what's transpired. "They really have been wonderful to work with," she says of her Public Theater comrades. "It's fun to work with people who help you get to something sharper."
Dry Powder, by Sarah Burgess. Directed by Thomas Kail. With Sanjit De Silva. Through May 1 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., New York. Visit publictheater.org or call 212-967-7555.