In her Studio Theatre comedy Kings, New York playwright and Alexandria native Sarah Burgess delves into the underbelly of lobbying in Washington. The story follows Sydney Millsap, a freshman congresswoman from Texas who refuses to play the influence games of special interests, as she clashes with lobbyists and a fellow politician over money and power in government.
Along the way, the show, which runs though January 16, name-drops numerous DC fundraiser hotspots and political hangouts, including Sonoma, the Capital Grill, Bullfeathers, Art & Soul, and Hotel George. Millsap, meanwhile, prefers a margarita and sizzling fajitas at Chili’s, where several of the play’s scenes take place. We asked Burgess about “power restaurants” and anti-power restaurants in Kings:
How did you go about getting that insider-y feel for the play?
I started writing the play when I happened across an article about out-of-town fundraisers and multi-day retreats in Aspen or Vail, or a Four Seasons or Ritz resort in Florida. The first phase was just doing a lot of reading of news coverage and learning about fundraisers. And then there’s a website, politicalpartytime.org, that tracks real fundraiser invitations. So that was fun to see the real material that goes out—not reading something in the Times or The Post. At some point I did show the play to some people who were in DC, and one lobbyist who was especially helpful with where things typically happened. That person specifically mentioned Hotel George as a place for breakfast, so that ended up in the play.
Having done all this research and dug into this world, what would you say defines a power restaurant in DC?
These places feel like they’re a part of people’s work lives, and where they do business as much as their offices are. I’m not sure how much pleasure is derived from that. It seems like there’s fundraising breakfasts at odd times and at places you maybe associate with seafood dinners. There’s something sort of funny about that to me. I probably think about Capital Grille or something like that—those places that are institutions that have a timeless quality where you would be comfortable having a steak with your dad if your dad could afford steak at the Capital Grille.
It still seems like what people associate with a “power restaurant” is that old-school, mahogany-walled type place.
Yeah, that is kind of a cliché. Although I actually like mahogany walls and steakhouses, personally. You may not choose to go to these places, but you have to because there’s an event there. In the third scene of the play, these lobbyists are like, “Ugh, here we are again at the Capital Grille.'” Where do those people go in their personal time when they really want to have a great meal? That’s sort of a realm outside of the play.
You have several scenes that take place in Chili’s, which is kind of the anti-power restaurant. Why Chili’s specifically?
This congresswoman represents North Dallas, and Chili’s was in fact invented by a guy from Dallas. I’m from Alexandria; obviously, we have Chili’s in the area. The one in the play is on Route 1, which is near where I grew up. That is the restaurant where I can imagine the character who’s really pointedly avoiding the power places or the coolest places in DC. In the past ten years or so, I have also encountered different people from Dallas who are very passionate about Chili’s. I’m talking about the Dallas diaspora—people who move to LA or New York. My girlfriend is from Dallas, and she would take me to Chili’s, and I’m kind of into it now. So it fits that character: straightforward, unfussy, kind of uncool. And it is true that it’s not bad. Those chips are pretty good.
So of all the restaurants in the play that’s the one you’ve been to the most?
That is 100-percent true. I went to Chili’s like five days ago. I’ve now had the experience when this play is done outside New York of going to Chili’s with different casts. This play was in Southern California, and the cast and the director and I went to Chili’s in Orange County. It was fun to go there with all these actors who all live in LA and have sushi all the time. I didn’t do it with the DC cast. I think [actor Elliott Bales] made queso for everybody, because he’s Texan.
Are sizzling fajitas your go-to?
They are, yes. It is solid. I really stand behind that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.