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Great Danes and the Typecasting Trap

books and culture

Great Danes and the Typecasting Trap

The super-talented Homeland actress isn’t well-served by her character in Dry Powder. April 15, 2016
Arts and Culture

Claire Danes is a star. Whether battling Islamist terrorists and internal demons as Carrie Mathison on the Showtime series Homeland (for which she won back-to-back Emmys and two Golden Globes) or commanding the New York stage in a new play about the sins of American capitalism, the actress commands your attention. That’s the strength—and a weakness—of Dry Powder, the 90-minute drama now playing in a limited run (through May 1) at Manhattan’s Public Theater.

Word that Danes would star in this world premiere by playwright Sarah Burgess triggered a frenzy of interest. Extended twice, the play was sold out only weeks after tickets went on sale (though individual tickets can still be found for remaining performances). Staged by Thomas Kail, director of the Public’s mega-hit Hamilton, the play features superb supporting performances by John Krasinski, Hank Azaria, and Sanjit De Silva. Burgess’s dialogue is sharp and witty, and delivers a dramatic punch. But the theme of Wall Street’s indifference to the pain inflicted by its machinations is well-trod dramatic turf. From Death of a Salesman to Glengarry Glen Ross, the theater has suffered no shortage of plays decrying the evils of private enterprise.

As the play opens, Rick, founder and president of KMM, a midtown-Manhattan-based private-equity firm, is being attacked in the press for throwing an extravagant engagement party the same week that his firm has laid off thousands of workers at a national grocery chain following a leveraged buyout. Jenny (Danes), a KMM managing director, dismisses the outrage and scoffs at the scandal. But Rick is rattled. He’s been fending off calls from investors worried about protestors. “Of course they’re protesting. That’s what unemployed people do,” scoffs Jenny, whose obsession with profits and investment capital—or “dry powder”—gives new meaning to cutthroat capitalism.

Seth (Krasinski), a KMM managing director and Jenny’s rival, also worries about the bad press. To counter it, he is championing a new buyout deal that will not only make KMM lots of money but also save American jobs. He’s urging Rick to buy Landmark Luggage, a Sacramento-based company employing 653 workers. He has cajoled Jeff Schrader, Landmark’s chief executive, who urges his employees to volunteer for good causes on weekends, into letting KMM buy the firm for what seems a song and modernize its business. KMM will also give Seth a large bonus should the deal go through. Jenny has other ideas. She tells Rick her numbers show that more money can be made by outsourcing Landmark’s jobs, sucking the company dry, and selling the shell. For KMM, this is business as usual. The subplot rivalry between Seth and Jenny is terrifyingly funny. But its unsurprising point is that, while Jenny may not be the heartless barracuda she seems, there are no good guys in high finance.

Playing a character as devoted to making money as Carrie Mathison is to saving the West from terror, Danes’s performance is pitch-perfect—and that’s the problem. Jenny is Carrie Mathison without the bipolar disorder and other endearing vulnerabilities. Watching Jenny, I couldn’t stop thinking about Carrie, and the extent to which Danes may have become inseparable from that character.

The best American actors have escaped typecasting. Kevin Spacey has done so brilliantly, despite his unforgettable portrait of Frank Underwood in House of Cards. Spacey’s career has been as long and varied as his roles. Meryl Streep, perhaps America’s greatest actress, is convincing in all her parts—from Vogue’s ambitiously cool editor in The Devil Wears Prada to the sensitive Polish mother confronted with an impossible decision in Sophie’s Choice. The great British actors, of course, are champions at escaping typecasting. Vanessa Redgrave, Jude Law, and especially Mark Rylance have been utterly convincing playing a wide range of characters on stage and screen.

There is theatrical peril here. Though he was talented and almost by definition a character actor rather than a leading man, James Gandolfini couldn’t escape being Tony Soprano, the head of a New Jersey organized crime syndicate. Danes, by contrast, has already demonstrated the range of a leading actor. Performing since age nine, she came to critical attention as Angela Chase, a shy teenager, in My So-Called Life, the critically acclaimed 1994 series for which she won the first of her Golden Globe awards. That same year, she made her film debut as the sweet, dying Beth in Little Women, and gained critical notice for her starring role in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. Luhrmann called the 16-year-old Danes the “Meryl Streep of her generation.” Since then, she has appeared in The Rainmaker, Les Miserables, Brokedown Palace, Igby Goes Down, and Stardust, among other films. She has also continued performing on stage. Considering this diverse body of work, one can’t help but wonder why she wanted the role of Jenny for her debut at the Public.

Whether Danes will forever be typecast as Carrie depends on the choices she makes going forward. Dry Powder’s Jenny is a caricature of a heartless priestess of finance, so myopic that she doesn’t know the name of one of her analysts, or that he has been hospitalized with a drug addiction. Given Danes’s exceptional talent, one hopes that her next role will be as distinctive and memorable as the character she created in Homeland. That’s a high bar.

Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images

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