by John Stoltenberg
“Laws are like sausages,” goes the adage. “It’s better not to see them being made.” As it happens, I have a good mental picture of how sausages are made, because for three summers during college I worked in a sausage factory. I got to see it all, from carcass to grinder to intestine-stuffer to shiny shrink-wrapped package. If I’m being honest, though, that old simile to legislation doesn’t yield much sense, certainly nothing instructive about today’s political landscape. But after watching Studio’s cracking good production of Sarah Burgess’s whip-smart comedy Kings, I now have a vivid and indelible mental picture of how laws really are made: by lawmakers in collusion with lobbyists and big donors. Monied interests drive policy by stuffing campaign coffers. Quid pro quo corruption is baked in. Against these finagling funding forces, idealism is a fool’s game. It’s the wurst.
This is the sobering takeaway from Burgess’s amazingly illuminating and utterly entertaining play. With a script bristling with wit and just four characters on stage—two elected officials and two lobbyists—Kings is a scintillating synecdoche for the whole of Washington’s systemic codependence with big money.
The central character is Rep. Sydney Millsap, the play’s “very awake” torchbearer for idealism, integrity, and conscience. She is the first woman and the first person of color ever elected from her district in Texas. She is not opposed to accepting funds from monied interests; she just refuses to let it influence her: “I don’t want to be told what to do by a finance lobbyist,” she says. Nehassaiu deGannes performs the role with such stately conviction and clear-eyed principle that one roots for her from the get-go. She holds out hope for real rule-breaking change: “If you obsess over what’s possible,” she says, “it limits your view of what’s possible.” If she were running in real life one would want to vote her into office immediately.
Two of her foils are lobbyists, Kate and Lauren, polished young women who know the art of schmoozing with legislators and brokering deals with funders. Kelly McCrann as Kate and Laura C. Harris as Lauren shine from within with intelligence and Hill skills. Kate and Lauren, former lovers, rep different clients and butt up against each other’s tactics. But they both are professionally invested in facilitating how policy follows the money, not the will of the people.
Rep. Millsap’s other foil is Texas senator John McDowell, who’s been in office for years and is unfazed by his deep allegiance to donors. Elliott Bales brings to the role a formidable gravitas while at the same time steering clear of a bad-guy vibe. It’s a deft balancing act. In a stunning plot twist, Rep. Millsap decides to run against Sen. McDowell in the next primary. They have a stemwinder of a live debate—holding mics, addressing us the audience as their constituents—and the stark contrast between the economics of their values electrifies the air.
Kings is supersmart storytelling, in the hands of four riveting actors. Marti Lyons, who last season directed a girls’ soccer team in The Wolves with such precision, stages the verbal combat in Kings with equivalent brilliance.
In a city where provocative plays about our broken government are popping up with increasing regularity, Kings stands out as a critical key to what’s crooked about the kingdom. It’s packed with gasp-worthy laughs…and important truth.
Running Time: One hour 45 minutes, with no intermission.