South Coast Repertory has long championed playwrights concerned more with the poetics than the politics of the stage. Language, voice and the spaces between words trump agenda, agitprop and overtly socially conscious plays. Its stories are usually more literate than literal, more personal than political, and any larger, universal connections they make stem from artful construction rather than obvious attempts at social relevance.
All of which make its current production of Sarah Burgess’ Kings, which debuted earlier this year at New York City’s Public Theatre, such an anomaly. It’s not as if SCR has strictly avoided plays that deal with social or political concerns. (Hell, it’s welcoming back the brilliant satirical, politically iconoclastic Culture Clash in late December.) In its past two seasons, four plays—Cambodian Rock Band, All the Way, The Master Builder and The District Merchants—all dealt in some fashion with complicated histories that touched upon race, war and moral corruption within a political context. But those concerns, while infusing those stories, all felt subordinate to the characters and language.
Kings doesn’t. This is a play that seems to exist solely because of Trump America, Citizens United and the Divided States of America. Which means it exists because of now. Unfortunately, Burgess’ exploration of now isn’t interesting enough to make us care about it much.
An idealistic, stubborn-as-a-mule female person of color somehow wins a seat to Congress from a Texas district. Determined to vote on policy rather than political expedience, she finds herself immersed in a world of lobbyists and politicians whose main job is raising money for re-election rather than faithfully representing their constituents. Refusing to play along, she is rejected by everyone, including big-money donors and her own party. But riding the so-called wave of anti-establishment fervor (the grassroots kind, not the opportunistic rhetoric of a certain Twitterer-in-chief), she becomes a much bigger threat than anyone could have realized.
If you’re a political junkie or one of those sad handful of Americans that watches C-Span, this is a play that will undoubtedly resonate. Burgess obviously knows her stuff, from the political intricacies of Washington, D.C., to the blood that keeps its heart beating even as it drains its soul: money. Filling her play are discussions about the behind-the-scenes machinations of lobbyists, carried interest, bill riders, legislative committees and all kinds of inside-the-Beltway stuff that policy wonks sprinkle on their K Street martinis.
But our congresswoman, Sydney Millsap (a feisty Tracey A. Leigh), isn’t K Street; she’s Chili’s (billed as a comedy, the several scene changes to Chili’s and its annoying baby-back ribs jingle are one of the few things that provoke out-loud laughter in this 100-minute play). But while Burgess tries very hard to humanize Millsap as a real person who seems hopelessly outmatched by the D.C. system but refuses to back down, it takes more than oversized margaritas and sizzling fajitas served tableside to turn her into a contemporary Mr. Smith fighting the bloated and entrenched D.C. establishment. What it takes is more Millsap; the fact that a huge part of who she is and what ultimately plays a key role in resolving this play doesn’t come until the final minutes feels too late. Up until that point, Millsap seems more caricature than character, as do the other participants: Senator McDowell (SCR founding artist Richard Doyle, who gets a refreshingly large part and milks it for all its worth) and lobbyists Kate (a very talented Jules Willcox, who does everything she can to round out her ambitious and complicated, but ultimately thinly drawn, character, who, much of the time, the play seems to really be about) and Lauren (Paige Lindsey White, who seems as if she is talking more than acting much of the time, something that is more the script’s fault than hers).
Caricature would be fine if this were a satire, an upraised middle finger to Washington, D.C., or even a pointed attempt at reminding us of why we should care. But Kings isn’t. There is nothing new, provocative or particularly insightful in terms of Where We Are, How We Got Here and, far more important, How the Fuck Do We Change It. There’s a reason—hell, lots of reasons—why Congress trails even TV news (!) in the dismal race to the bottom of American institutions that we trust the least. And one of those is how irrelevant it feels to the vast majority of Americans.
As smart and well-intentioned as Kings may be, and as contemporary as it may feel, it also feels just as irrelevant. Trump gets one thing right, if right means so terribly wrong: Politics is personal, and the more personal you make it, the more people pay attention. Kings needs more personal in its political—or a few artfully placed grenades to blow some shit up.
Kings at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center, Costa Mesa (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Tues-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through Nov. 10. $23-$86.
Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???