Modern Morality

BYRNE dry powder.png Hank Azaria, Claire Danes, and John Krasinski in Sarah Burgess’ “Dry Powder” directed by Thomas Kail, at the Public Theater through May 1 only. | JOAN MARCUS

Hank Azaria, Claire Danes, and John Krasinski in Sarah Burgess’ “Dry Powder” directed by Thomas Kail, at the Public Theater through May 1 only. | JOAN MARCUS

“You have to allow less intelligent people to hate you. It’s their destiny, and it costs you nothing.” So says Jenny, a partner in a high-end investment banking firm to her colleague/ competitor/ partner Seth when he expresses discomfort at the acquisition deal Jenny is proposing that will put a lot of “little people” out of work, not to mention decimating a family business. She’s unfazed because in Jenny’s world, there is no place for emotion or sentiment; there’s just scoring the most cash possible.

The conflict between Seth and Jenny is at the center of “Dry Powder,” a new play by Sarah Burgess getting a wonderful world premiere at the Public under the brilliant direction of Thomas Kail. The intense 95-minute play is steeped in the fast-paced, contemporary language of mergers and acquisitions, but at heart it is a Medieval morality play, in which a mere mortal is pitted against irresistible temptation and in the thrall of good and bad angels. Here it is not the traditional devil of Dante, Marlowe, or Milton, but rather the allure of Wall Street riches that can separate a man from his soul. That man is Jeff Schrader, president of a luggage company ripe for acquisition. He comes to Seth, the good angel, with a vision for preserving the company and its culture but also growing to serve new customers. Jenny, the bad angel, wants to strip the company down and make Jeff very rich, but at the expense of his employees.

A Medieval style in contemporary clothes proves fascinating

Burgess sets up the conflict between Seth and Jenny beautifully. The company they work for is in the midst of a PR debacle, and the company’s founder, Rick (who would be God in the morality play), sets the two against one another. What follows are barbs and insults between Seth and Jenny both cringe-inducing and hilarious. Burgess clearly understands the mechanics of a Wall Street acquisition, yet as obscure as some of the financial language might be to some, the battle at the heart of the story is always clear. The high stakes involved — both financial and personal — make this battle compelling. To reveal the victor would be to spoil the suspense, but it’s clear at the end that this is but one battle in an eternal war.

The company, under Kail’s precise direction, is outstanding. Hank Azaria is decisive and strong as Rick, the original deal-maker, and Sanjit De Silva is dead-on as the tempted everyman, Jeff. The play, though, belongs to Claire Danes as Jenny and John Krasinski as Seth. They are each commanding and laser-focused in their work, perfectly balanced in their energies as they strive to win.

Rachel Hauk’s cool platform set, with wonderful lighting by Jason Lyons, could be a modern pageant wagon, stylishly serving as the perfect cockpit for the competition. Like the original morality plays, “Dry Powder” deals in absolutes, creating a marvelous and gripping theatricality that resonates long after the show has moved on.

DRY POWDER | The Public Theater, Martinson Hall, 425 Lafayette St., btwn. E. Fourth St. & Astor Pl. | Through May 1: Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $95 at or 212-967-7555 | Ninety-five mins., no intermission