The plot of Dry Powder, a 2016 play by Sarah Burgess, is relatively complex, largely because it deals with the world of high finance. A private equity firm president named Rick commits a social faux pas by throwing himself an extravagant party right after a series of massive layoffs at a grocery store that the firm invested in. In order to shore up the firm’s shaky PR, one of Rick’s managers, Seth, suggests they invest in a small luggage company with big potential.
But one of Rick’s other managers, Jenny, suggests liquidating the luggage company and selling it off for maximum profit. So the play is set up as a battle between the moral imperative and the financial one, with Jenny and Seth each leveraging their charm and persuasiveness to the hilt in order to convince Rick of what the right path is.
Also, it’s kind of a comedy. But kind of not. It’s a morally ambiguous work that doesn’t necessarily side with either of the arguments. Nothing is black and white, and no one is pure good or pure evil. It’s a challenging work, and one that Charleston’s Village Repertory Company has taken on with relish.
“Dry Powder jumped out because it’s contemporary, it’s funny, and it deals with a subject matter that’s not normal for us in the arts: The world of high finance,” says Robbie Thomas, the play’s director. “We had to do some research; it wasn’t second nature for us. But the biggest thing is the humor.”
Thomas stops short of calling the play a comedy. “It kind of lives in that gray area between comedy and drama,” he says. “It has some insanely funny moments, but the world of high finance is not exactly the funniest place to live. It deals with that top one percent and how they treat the rest of us.”
Compared to the other 99 percent, and the members of Village Repertory Company, these characters “may as well be aliens,” Thomas says. “They’re not people we encounter on an everyday basis.”
So … is it a dark comedy? Well, maybe.
“It depends on how you define dark comedy, because that phrase can kind of be a buzzword that people throw around,” he says. “I think of dark comedy more as Martin McDonagh (author of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), where it’s hard to find redemption in the characters. They’re bad people who are also funny. The people in Dry Powder definitely have souls, and some of them care about other people.”
So what are we going to be seeing onstage at Woolfe Street? Thomas says he’s not sure, and he’s happy about that.
“It might be considered a ‘dramedy,'” he says. “It doesn’t seem like the theater community has really come up with a phrase to describe this, and that’s fine because you don’t want to throw everything into a genre. It definitely has something for the people looking for drama and other people who are looking for comedy.”
That slippery classification applies to the characters, as well. Seth’s arguments seem the most humane, but Jenny’s goal is simply what’s best for her boss’ company.
“There’s not what I would call a conventional hero,” Thomas says. “Our main character Seth is about as close as you’re going to get. It’s about the haves and the have-nots, and the have-nots never show up on stage. There’s no one in the show who’s a have-not. But Seth appears to care for them, as opposed to most of the other characters. Seth seems to really be worried about what happens to the factory workers if they shut it down.”
The three main roles require a great deal of charm, otherwise Rick and Jenny in particular would be unbearable. When it came to casting, Thomas was able to pull all of the characters from Village Repertory’s 25-member company, which doesn’t always happen.
“Seth is being played by Spencer Jones,” he says. “Spencer is an incredibly charming actor, which was the biggest thing for me. He has to be likable. We have to want to follow him on this journey.”
As for Jenny, played by Charley Smith, and Rick, played by Dave Reinwald, Thomas says they can’t be bad guy caricatures.
“They have to be recognizably human,” he says. “Charley Smith has the ability to make bad decisions, things that seem like they’re horrible, and justify them. She has a way of winning you over to your side even if it’s not the right side. She can make a very logical argument and make it hard for you to argue against it.”
As for Rick, since he’s the boss, Thomas says that he has to be authoritative and somewhat even-handed.
“Rick likes to look at things from both sides,” he says. “He doesn’t make a decision before hearing from both of them. So it’s set up as a battle of wits between these three people, who are very adept at making their point. They’re all charming and they all make logical sense. You might lean towards Seth, but you can’t say Rick and Jenny don’t have a good point. There’s not anyone where you don’t come out questioning whether they were right or not.”