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By Donalevan Maines
In Manhattan, out playwright Sarah Burgess has friends from Houston who think she’s made it big now that her play Dry Powder is at the Alley Theatre (through February 12).
Never mind that Dry Powder already premiered last year at the prestigious Joseph Papp Public Theater in the Big Apple, where it starred A-listers Claire Danes, John Krasinski, and Hank Azaria.
Burgess can’t help but admit that the Alley production is certainly “big time,” especially in Texas, where size matters.
“It’s the largest theater by far,” she says, to perform her play, explaining that there are only about 200 seats at the Public’s Martinson Theater, where Dry Powder’s brief run was extended twice due to audience demand.
Burgess attended the first rehearsal of Dry Powder’s production at the Alley while in Texas to visit her “girlfriend” Kristina Meny’s family in Dallas.
“We come [from Brooklyn Heights] to Dallas every time around holidays,” explains Burgess, who’s 33. The native of Bethesda, Maryland, is the daughter of naval officers, and graduated in 2001 from West Potomac High School in Alexandria, Virginia.
“I came to New York for college, sort of,” she says.
At New York University, Burgess studied filmmaking, graduating in 2005 from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She didn’t try her hand at playwriting until after college, when she participated in a writer’s group for theater.
“My writing style is very much about people talking, so it made sense to write a 90-minute play,” she explains. “I liked the idea of spending time with a character, even one you might consider [to be] horrible if you met them, but in the confines of a play, you might even enjoy them, perhaps.”
Burgess created that compelling combination in the play’s leading character, Jenny, a seemingly heartless go-getter at a private equity firm in Manhattan.
“I know people like her,” says Burgess, including some of the upwardly mobile students she tutored as they prepared for taking standardized tests.
She was also intrigued by the lingo she learned from friends who work on Wall Street. “I enjoyed learning their terminology,” explains Burgess.
Off Broadway, Dry Powder was advertised as “a gripping, razor-sharp new play about the price of success and the real cost of getting the deal done.” The Alley bills it as “a razor $harp play about the real price of $uccess.” The production also comes with a warning that it “contains explicit language and adult content.”
In press material, the Alley synopsizes the play as follows: “The same week his private equity firm forced massive layoffs at a national grocery chain, Rick threw himself an extravagant engagement party, setting off a publicity nightmare. Fortunately, Seth, one of Rick’s partners, has a win-win deal to invest in an American-made luggage company for a song and rescue his boss from a PR disaster. But Jenny, Seth’s counterpart, has an entirely different plan: to squeeze every last penny out of the company, no matter the consequences. The game is on in Sarah Burgess’ gripping, razor-sharp new play about the price of success and the real cost of getting the deal done.”
Burgess doesn’t mind that some fans compare her play to The Big Short, a 2015 comedy that was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, winning the Oscar for its screenplay, which was adapted from a 2010 book about how the U.S. housing bubble caused the financial crisis of 2008.
“The play is very different structurally, but it would definitely be appropriate to think of the play and the movie in similar terms,” says Burgess, who is currently working on her second play, which is about lobbyists in Washington DC.
“Almost to the extreme,” says Burgess, what she writes about is less concerned with the personal lives of her characters and more about how they behave in commerce and industry.
“So far, I’ve written about politics and money and ideas, which are things that connect with most people,” says Burgess. “I’m sure that producers who are looking for a writer to write about gay people can think of seven more qualified lesbians. Maybe I should throw my hat into that ring, and do a better job of marketing myself.”
Limiting her dating choices to women helped the matchmaker who brought together Burgess and Meny, she says. “Even living in New York, he only knew a few lesbians, but that’s why he thought we might hit it off,” says Burgess. “People [that] you might think, on paper, would not have a lot in common, get matched up when someone thinks, ‘You’re both lesbians.’ It’s actually kind of great.”
Burgess won the 2016 Laurents Hatcher Prize and was a Susan Smith Blackburn Prize finalist for Dry Powder. Its cast at the Alley, directed by Taibi Magar, features Elizabeth Bunch as Jenny, Jay Sullivan, Chris Hutchison, and John Feltch.
Prior to the 7:30 p.m. performance of Dry Powder on Thursday, February 2, the Alley hosts ActOUT, a pre-performance mixer with socializing, door prizes, complimentary cocktails, and appetizers.
To buy a ticket, use the promo code: ACTOUT. Purchase online or by calling the box office anytime at 713.220.5700, then enter 1.
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.