‘Dry Powder’ a chilling look at high finance

At one point in Sarah Burgess’ little gem of a play, “Dry Powder,” I scribbled in my notebook, “What is LP?”

“LP” is just one of the unfamiliar (to me) words bandied about by Burgess’ four characters in this jargon-laden play about high-level financiers.

Even the title refers to an insider term; turns out it means “liquid, cash-like capital,” as explained in the program.

But in fact the playwright used just the right amount of jargon in the script — any less would have made it inauthentic — and it doesn’t matter if you don’t understand all of the terms, or (in my case) most of them. It’s the conflict among personalities, and the appalling glimpse of capitalism at its ugliest, that’s important.

In Aurora Theatre’s production, with director Jennifer King’s excellent ensemble of actors, the conflict packs a visceral punch; the play crackles with unrelenting tension.

Rick (an explosive, scarily controlling Aldo Billingslea) is the head of a New York private equity firm, KMM, that is preparing to buy out a failing luggage-manufacturing company.

That’s what KMM does — it buys out companies, increases their value (apparently in nefarious ways, like laying off workers and transferring manufacturing offshore) and turns them over.

“We’re in the business of exiting investments,” snaps math-whiz Jenny (Emily Jeanne Brown), one of the trio of cutthroat directors of the company.

Rick purposely brought Jenny and Seth (Jeremy Kahn) into the business with him because he knew the two of them would always be in opposition, and that would help him make decisions.

Indeed, the two hate each other. Jenny’s cold, ruthless and entitled; Seth has a feeble streak of moral apprehension about the work. (“At some point it starts to matter how people feel about you,” he says.) Jenny promises to destroy him, and in Brown’s uncompromising portrayal, you believe her.

Seth’s in charge of finagling the luggage company acquisition, cozying up to the company’s earnest but naive CEO, Jeff (Kevin Kemp).

Also at stake is the effort to reverse a public relations disaster: Rick recently held a million-dollar engagement party in Bali, featuring an elephant, on the same day as workers were laid off in one of KMM’s companies. Jenny shrugs it off. “They” will always vilify the successful, she says. “They want what we have.”

No one’s heroic in Burgess’ chilling vision.

And if you must know, “LP” means “limited partner.”

Dry Powder
Presented by Aurora Theatre Company
Where: 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, closes July 22
Tickets: $33 to $65
Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org

Jean Schiffman

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