If you haven’t said or heard the names associated with the Enron scandal in the decade since it was in the news — Jeff Skilling, Ken Lay, Andy Fastow — the first time they are spoken in Lucy Prebble’s play Enron, now playing at Theatre 3, you react viscerally, the way you might to Goebbles, Himmler or Mengele: The architects of a financial holocaust that popped the American economy in ways that continue to reverberate. It’s a feeling of disgust and curiosity.
It’s odd, that gut muscle memory that causes you to heave ever-so-slightly when you see the dramatization of such boondoggle buzzwords as credit-default swap, derivatives, energy trading, deregulation and even “irrational exuberance.” (The show uses a lot of multi-media elements, including Dow Jones ticker scrolls and audio-visual echoes from the 1990s.) You sense pangs of guilt by association for being in the room with Fastow (David Goodwin) as he shares with Skilling (Chris Hury) his plan to prop up Enron’s stock with a corporate shell game of shell corporations. The audience has the benefit of 20/20 hindsight to know where the plan in headed, but you can’t help but feel contempt for those in the room with them who didn’t say, “What the fuck are you talking about?” It’s as if everyone was too stupid — or too greedy — to call foul on the emperor’s new clothes.
The sweep of the greed planned in boardrooms in Houston to generate false “profits” by claiming victory before the clock counted down (Skilling’s idea, basically, was the record as “profit” the potential windfall of a deal before an actual money had changed hands, thereby rewarding entrepreneurship in closing a deal at the expense of making sure it was a good deal) staggers the imagination. And in Theatre 3’s compelling production, directed by Jeffrey Schmidt, we sit there gape-mouthed as the horrors are visited upon everyday stockholders duped by monsters in blue serge.
Like, say, Chicago, the play is full of the funhouse elements, including marionettes, song and dance, puppets and fantasy to approximate the carnival atmosphere that led to the downfall. But Theatre 3’s production is most memorable for its performances, especially Hury as the voracious egotist Skilling, Doug Jackson (his best work ever) as a sadly sympathetic Ken Lay and Jennifer Boswell as Claudia Roe, the lone woman who was the Cassandra of Enron officer, hectoring them about the fallacy of invented money and manipulation to create perceived value while the authentic bases of business were ignored.
Sadly, even 11 years after the meltdown, the rules promulgated at Enron dominate American business. We “learned” a lot from what Skilling at Co. did — but we haven’t learned anything.
Last weekend’s opening performance of the 1930s Rodgers & Hart musical Too Many Girls was the first time an audience had seen a live production of that show since it closed on Broadway in 1940 (it ran a respectable seven months and introduced us — and Lucille Ball — to a new singer named Desi Arnaz.) Let’s just say that the world has not been horribly deprived by the intervening lapse. Lorenz Hart died a few years later (and he and Richard Rodgers produced their best show, Pal Joey, leaving Rodgers to team with Oscar Hammerstein for a truly legendary run). Too Many Girls was too cutesy-poo once the genius of Oklahoma! reinvented what a musical could be three years later.
It isn’t that the music in Girls is bad (although the song “Cuz We Got Cake” easily stands as one of the dumber numbers I’ve ever heard) or that the script is lame (it pretty much is — a silly confection about college football stars who give up their athletic dreams to follow a single girl to a co-ed school in the middle of Nowhere, New Mexico); it’s that there’s not much there there in any event: Songs are meant to be fun, not really tell a story, and there’s virtually no character development as a sorority of virgins at Pottawatomie U. (a name that sounds like Bullwinkle’s alma mater) blue-ball the football players.
But some of it works, including the opening number (“Heroes in the Fall”) and some charming performances by John Campione (in Desi’s role) and Daron Cockerell, channeling Carol Burnett (I’d love to hear her sing “I’m Shy” from Once Upon a Mattress some day). And kudos, as usual, to Lyric Stage for continuing to produce musicals on a grand scale … even if sometimes the shows themselves aren’t as deserving of such white-glove treatment as others.
Runs through Sunday.