NEW YORK — If I told you there was an intriguing new play about K Street involving a lobbyist’s efforts to kill a bill revising the rules for businesses’ accounting for carried interest, you’d go on to the next story, right?
Well, okay, be that way. But I’m going to discuss anyway why Sarah Burgess’s “Kings,” at off-Broadway’s Public Theater, deserves kind words and more attention than it has received. It’s a tautly intelligent drama, directed by Thomas Kail — renowned for his shepherding of “Hamilton” — that goes against the theatrical grain in ways that make it hard for some people to appreciate its mission.
For one thing, “Kings” isn’t character-driven in quite the manner to which theatergoers are accustomed. Rather, the main protagonist is a process — and a broken one, at that — that nevertheless dominates the politics of the nation’s capital. For that reason, a piece so keenly suited to the culture of a particular city may simply have had its premiere in the wrong one.
The Bethesda-born, Alexandria-bred Burgess has a talent for demystifying elite hierarchies and systems abused by those with access, money and inside knowledge. (A Burgess dramatization of, say, the Christopher Steele dossier might be counted a service to the country.) “Dry Powder,” her 2016 drama, also directed by Kail at the Public (and starring Claire Danes, John Krasinski and Hank Azaria), was a sober illumination of the amorality of the private-equity industry and how smart but conscience-challenged corporate raiders buy and sell companies without a thought to the workers whose lives they are ruining.
“Kings,” a more nuanced and accomplished play, shows us how inextricably bolted to American government the ironwork of special interests has made itself. At the heart of the story is a newly minted member of the House of Representatives, an African American woman (Eisa Davis) from north Dallas determined not to play ball with the blandly coercive lobbyists (Aya Cash and Gillian Jacobs) seeking her favor. “What can I do to get you in a room with …?” is the mantra of Jacobs’s Kate, as she tries to enlist Davis’s Rep. Sydney Millsap, at some swanky party retreat, in killing a bill her financial-services clients despise. For ethical contrast, there’s also an influential Texas senator and committee chairman (Zach Grenier), who is all but in the pockets of bankers and traders. Instead of taking his advice about going along to get along, Sydney decides to take the senator on in a primary election challenge.
We rarely get a play that attempts in such meticulously well-observed fashion to explain the way the legislative branch really works. Davis does a highly effective job here, channeling for us the psychology of a reform-minded outsider who finds herself with the choice of making concessions to the mercenary establishment that runs Congress — and the country — or becoming irrelevant. An audience member has to approach this evening with at least a tiny bit of wonkish curiosity about the social and political aspects of lawmaking; that some people express to me an impatience with the subject of the play may say as much about a general erosion of willingness to engage dramatically with civic topics as about any of the possible shortcomings of “Kings.”
It’s incumbent that plays such as “Kings” can find an audience, and with four fine actors, Kail’s sharply staged production should be getting people talking more. Maybe Washington at some point will prove to be a more rewarding staging ground. In its depictions of the friction between lobbying rivals Kate and Cash’s Lauren, the dependency of Grenier’s Sen. McDowell on the types of support the lobbyists provide, and the ultimate fate of Sydney’s insurgency, “Kings” gives you a short, useful course on the fuel Washington runs on. It adds to a vital public discourse about the kind of government we have vs. the kind we want.
Kings, by Sarah Burgess. Directed by Thomas Kail. Set, Anna Louizos; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Jason Lyons; original music and sound, Lindsay Jones. About 90 minutes. Through April 1 at Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., New York. Visit PublicTheater.org or call 212-967-7555.