Photographer: Joan Marcus

What’s a Leveraged Buyout? Let Claire Danes Explain

The new Off Broadway play Dry Powder brings harsh humor to the world of finance.

Private equity types will find familiar terminology—"multiples of investment," "performance quartiles"—in Dry Powder, a new Off Broadway play that is perhaps the first to set a buyout firm as its milieu. They may also, uncomfortably, recognize the parties.

As far as its portrayal of the actual workings of a private equity firm, they will undoubtedly say Dry Powder 1 plays on caricatures and stereotypes more than reality. But they will probably find themselves laughing at the play’s quick-fire gallows humor as it tackles the industry's biggest perennial issue: whether buyouts benefit companies and the economy or are simply financial maneuvers executed at the expense of workers and others. In an election year with Wall Street on the hot seat, the play is topical, to say the least.

John Krasinski and Claire Danes in Dry Powder, written by Sarah Burgess and directed by Thomas Kail, running at The Public Theater.

Krasinski (left) and Danes in Dry Powder, written by Sarah Burgess and directed by Thomas Kail, running at the Public Theater.

Photographer: Joan Marcus

The show, which opened on Tuesday night at the Public Theater in New York, takes a behind-the-scenes look at the fictional private equity shop KMM Capital Management, which is struggling to recover from a public relations disaster engendered by its leader.

As the play opens, the firm's managing partner Rick (Hank Azaria, who starred in TV's Mad About You and does many voices for The Simpsons) is being lambasted by the New York Times for holding a lavish Balinese-style engagement party, complete with an elephant, on the same day his firm announced thousands of layoffs at ShopGreat, a grocery chain. There is more than a faint echo of the birthday party extravaganzas that the likes of Blackstone Group's Steve Schwarzman and TPG Capital co-founder David Bonderman threw for themselves a decade ago.

Adding to Rick’s woes are dissatisfied limited partners, themselves the subject of protests for their roles in the buyout that led to the ShopGreat layoffs.

Enter co-founding partner Seth (John Krasinski, who played Jim in The Office on TV), a smooth dealmaker with a proposed buyout that he argues will deliver the PR rebound the firm needs. Seth has set his sights on California suitcase maker Landmark Luggage.

Claire Danes, John Krasinski, and Hank Azaria in Dry Powder.

The show takes a behind-the-scenes look at fictional private equity shop KMM Capital Management. From left: Danes, Krasinski, and Hank Azaria.

Photographer: Joan Marcus

His plan, devised with the company's Chief Executive Officer Jeff (Sanjit De Silva), is to load the company with debt, disrupt the luggage industry by selling customizable suitcases online, and make it a great American growth story. But Seth's rival, fellow founding partner Jenny, played by Claire Danes (My So-Called Life and Homeland), has other ideas. She sees better returns in stripping the company and offshoring production.

Danes’s robotic focus and persistent lack of empathy as the career-fixated Jenny—her brow furrows as she tries to understand why good PR is necessary, let alone why they would shirk their fiduciary duty to investors to get it—is well mined for laughs. (“Maybe I should take a vacation. I’ve always kind of wanted to fly over Antarctica and look out the window. I’d be back in a day.”)

Hank Azaria, Claire Danes, and John Krasinski in Dry Powder,written by Sarah Burgess and directed by Thomas Kail, running at The Public Theater.

The sparse production brings a gallows humor to leveraged buyouts.

Photographer: Joan Marcus

Dry Powder trades on the clichés of the industry: the billionaire founder out of touch with the common people; a heartless married-to-her-job female executive; a slick deals guy who might not be as trustworthy as he first appears. Rick's party provides lots of grist:

Jenny: "Our past two funds were top quartile 2 . Legitimately top quartile. Our LPs aren’t going to abandon us because some jealous reporters made fun of your party elephants."

Rick: "Elephant. There was just one. … Why does everyone think there were two?"

Dry Powder has a solid grip on the nitty-gritty of buyouts such as debt sourcing, not to mention dry powder (available capital that is not yet invested).

Thankfully, it glosses over some of the minutiae of the dealmaking process. There are offhanded references to teams of analysts crunching numbers, (including one unfortunate, overworked soul who ends up in a hospital following an Adderall-assisted 3 all-nighter at the office), but no investment committee, bankers, or lawyers are in sight.

It is hard to say that those working in the industry will like the conclusions playwright Sarah Burgess reaches about their chosen field and the personalities who inhabit it—including those who at first appear above the fray but who, by play's end, turn out to be tainted. That is not to say they won’t be entertained.

The play, directed by Thomas Kail, runs through May 1. Tickets here.

  1. Dry powder refers to the amount of capital available in funds that is waiting to be invested. The Private Equity Growth Capital Council estimates that in third quarter 2015, $460  billion in dry powder was held by global buyout firms, with $1.3 trillion in private equity-style funds (including real estate, venture capital, and other strategies) competing for deals and driving up asset valuations.

  2. Claiming that their funds have performed in the top quartile is a favorite pastime of those in the private equity industry. Managers can use different benchmarks to reach the conclusion that their fund is in the top 25 percent of performers when compared to peers, massaging performance data to suit the purpose. 

  3. Kevin Roose's 2014 book Young Money: Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street's Post-Crash Recruits looks at the lives of young analysts, noting a preference for Adderall as the drug of choice (rather than cocaine) to keep them working all night.

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