“First of all, this isn’t a left and right thing,” says Congresswoman Sydney Millsap of the 24th district of Texas. She’s talking about a loophole in a tax bill, but the sentiment applies (just as feebly) to the whole of Sarah Burgess’s Kings, which seems at great pains not to be. Words like “democracy” and particularly “republic” get invoked freely; “Democrat” and “Republican” never do. Even Millsap’s own affiliation isn’t made explicit, which allows her, at the play’s climax, to again drive home Burgess’s thesis: “There is one thing about which we all agree. Left, right, center. Money has corrupted our politics.”
It’s fair to say this is a bipartisan concern, though the Public is undoubtedly playing to a certain audience. Thinly veiled references to Trump (“A whole lot of people want change. They want it so badly they’re willing to vote for psychopaths.”) earn knowing chuckles, and the somber observation that “it’s crazy these days, how the lies can spread” feels designed to elicit mournful head-shaking. But in spite of these grabs at low-hanging fruit, Kings is at times both entertaining and educational.
Thomas Kail, of Hamilton fame, has taken on another tale of a stubborn newcomer (Eisa Davis’s Millsap) seeking revolution – one who also alienates potential allies through tax reforms, and has less success overthrowing the titular monarchs. Davis is an electric presence on stage, and her Millsap proves a compelling foil to the lobbyists whose wooden delivery seems to stem from their reliance on stock responses: she’s helpfully informed, again and again, that she is the first woman and the first person of color ever to represent her district. We see sparks of real emotion when Millsap forces them off-script by rebuffing their proposals and refusing to play the game, but all too soon, the walls go back up.
Initially dismissed by lobbyists Kate (Gillian Jacobs) and Lauren (Aya Cash) as a neophyte who’ll soon be eaten alive, Millsap recaptures their attention when she takes what she learns about Washington back to her constituents. In shining a light on the backroom deals and casual corruption, she becomes the anti-establishment candidate Trump never could be: a straight-talker who actually knows what she’s talking about. Whether a campaign can succeed on such honesty alone—or convert those who stand to gain from the system as it is—becomes the central question of the play. Frustratingly, the characters themselves are for the most part too static and superficial for any of it to matter much. The script is left spinning its wheels.
If the production is lacking in emotional substance, it does at least have style. Anna Louizos’s set is simple but evocative, transforming easily from a ski chalet in Vail to a Chili’s in Virginia via neat, technicolor transitions. Another clever device is the way soundtracks set the stage. Scene changes are punctuated variously by dial tones, lobbyists’ entreaties, and a gruff-but-affable “How the hell are ya?” from Senator McDowell (Zach Grenier), Millsap’s rival. After Millsap turns off donors with her radical transparency (and disdain for lobbyists’ salmon canapés), they’re conducted in silence.
The best moments come when the physical set pieces are similarly stripped away: when it’s just Millsap addressing us, the voters, and when she and McDowell square up for their climactic debate, courting audience members on both sides of the aisle. Davis and Grenier are finally allowed to shine, and the congresswoman scores satisfying blows against a broken system.
This confrontation aside, Millsap’s boundless faith in the nation’s potential can be hard to swallow in the current climate, though to its credit, the play is aware of the absurdity. At one point, Kate, humoring her, recites as if by rote, “America is a project in pursuit of a beautiful idea.” In a more authentic moment, another character (who, crucially, no longer has any reason to lie) says simply: “God. What a shit taco this country’s turned out to be.”
Unfortunately, those sitting in the audience almost certainly felt that way going in. Perhaps Kings will one day prove a useful artifact of our times—a distillation of distinctly 2018 fears about fake news, corruption, and inept, self-serving politicians—but it’s hard to imagine such a determinedly “relevant” script outlasting the era it seeks to define.
Kings runs to March 25, 2018. More production info can be found here.