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Claire Danes puts private equity on center stage

It’s the stuff dreams are made of, especially if you’re a first-time playwright. Sarah Burgess says it was surreal when her play “Dry Powder,” about the sins of American capitalism, had its world premiere at New York City’s esteemed Public Theater in March. The Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, said the play was the best thing he had read in years.

But it gets better. The show’s director is Thomas Kail, who also directed the Public’s smash hit “Hamilton,” and there’s an all-star cast. We’re talking Claire Danes (“Homeland”), John Krasinski (“The Office”), and Hank Azaria (“The Simpsons”).

“I feel very grateful,” says Burgess, an NYU Tisch School of the Arts graduate. Burgess says the inspiration for her play was none other than Mitt Romney and Bain Capital, the private equity firm he co-founded. The firm was the subject of intense political and media scrutiny during Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
“I was obsessed with private equity,” Burgess tells Yahoo Finance. She explains how she was intrigued by how money can – surprise, surprise – often trump humanity in the world of high finance.

Although she never studied or worked in finance, Burgess decided to make it her business to learn everything she could about the seemingly mystical world of leveraged buyouts. She read voraciously on the topic and put her rough draft in front of dozens of people working in finance. She says the criticism was often candid and harsh.

“The smear on these private equity firms,” she says, “is that they take over companies, strip them down, fire all these people, and sometimes exit the investment with the company not even in better shape.”

“Dry Powder” is a comedy-drama that focuses on a private equity firm struggling with a public relations nightmare. The same week the firm forced massive layoffs at a national grocery chain, the company’s head Rick (Azaria) threw himself an extravagant engagement party, complete with an elephant.

One of his partners, Seth (Krasinski) thinks he’s found a way to help: buy a floundering American-made luggage company for cheap and save the firm from a PR disaster. His counterpart Jenny (Danes) has a different take: squeeze the company for all it’s worth, no matter how it up-ends peoples’ lives.

With dialogue like this, you know which side of the moral compass Burgess is on:

“You’ll be a businessman”, exclaims the luggage company CEO (Sanjit De Silva)

“I am a businessman,” Krasinki’s character strikes back.

“No you’re not, you’re in finance.” Ouch.

The actors do a terrific job having us believe they are high-heeling dealmakers. Phrases like “performance quartiles” and “multiples of investment” seem to roll off their tongues.

“They’re so smart and fit these characters so well,” says Burgess of her A-list cast. Still, she admits it’s hard to not get star struck, “I’m this creepy writer lady working alone in my apartment,” says the self-deprecating playwright, “and then you have to work with these actors.”

“Dry Powder” is certainly not the first theatrical production to take on the ills of capitalism. “Death of a Salesman” and “Glengarry Glen Ross” did so brilliantly decades ago. “Dry Powder” may rely on stereotypes to show what goes on behind closed doors in the world of private equity, but its sharp-witted humor and on-point acting pack a punch. And with Wall Street a familiar target in the presidential debates, it’s also very topical.

A Washington D.C. native, Burgess says her next play will tackle the world of lobbyists. Couldn’t you just see Alec Baldwin as the lead?

If you’re one of the lucky ones, you’ve already scored a ticket to “Dry Powder.” Its 10-week limited run ends May 1, and nearly every performance has been sold out. Not bad for a novice playwright.