Magic Time!: ‘Kings’ at Studio Theatre

Supersmart storytelling, in the hands of four riveting actors, about Washington's codependence with big money.

“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.

Nehassaiu deGannes as Sen. Sydney Millsap in ‘Kings.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

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.

Elliott Bales as Sen. John McDowell, Kelly McCrann as Kate, and Laura C. Harris as Lauren in ‘Kings.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

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.

Nehassaiu deGannes as Rep. Sydney Millsap in debate with Elliott Bales as Sen. John McDowell in ‘Kings.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

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.

[Read Sophia Howes’s review of Kings.]

Running Time: One hour 45 minutes, with no intermission.

Kings plays through January 13, 2019, at Studio Theatre – 1501 14th Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 332-3300 or go online.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.