‘Enron’ casts an avid eye on American business
‘I am not a bad man. I am not an unusual man. I wanted to change the world.’’
That is former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling speaking near the end of “Enron,’’ Lucy Prebble’s messy but zesty play about the collapse of the energy behemoth that became a byword for corporate corruption.
The fact that Skilling is wearing an orange prison jumpsuit when he makes these self-justifying declamations suggests that once in a while the good guys actually win and the bad guys actually have to pay a price for their misdeeds. Of course, a cursory look around our ruined economy suggests the exact opposite: The Skilling-like Wall Street operators who treated the financial system like one big casino have kept on livin’ large while the rest of us flounder in the wreckage they created.
So even though “Enron’’ is set in the period from 1992 to 2006, it is as timely as a punch in the stomach. That, presumably, is why David J. Miller, producing artistic director of the Zeitgeist Stage Company, chose it to kick off the company’s 10th season at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Zeitgeist, a small company that performs in the BCA’s tiny Plaza Black Box Theatre, has established a distinctive identity with its emphasis on edgy plays with political-social themes. In late 2009, Zeitgeist mounted a vigorous production of Craig Wright’s “Lady,’’ which chronicled the destructive impact of the Iraq war on three friends during a hunting trip, and this spring the company presented “Farragut North,’’ former political operative-turned-playwright Beau Willimon’s drama of disillusionment and betrayal on the presidential campaign trail.
The best thing about “Farragut North’’ was Victor Shopov’s performance as a ruthlessly opportunistic press secretary, and the best thing about “Enron’’ is Shopov’s portrayal of Skilling. This actor has a jittery energy and a knack for playing ethically challenged men — though “Enron’’ suggests that Skilling was less challenged by ethical questions than oblivious to them.
When we first see Skilling, he is a restless executive at the Texas energy company, carrying on an affair with a rival executive, Claudia Roe (Erin Cole), while trying to persuade Enron founder Ken Lay (Bill Salem) to name him CEO. Cole gives Roe an air of icy command, while Salem depicts Lay as a somewhat buffoonish figure who nonetheless is canny enough that he can pull strings in both Democratic and Republican administrations.
As soon as Lay chooses Skilling to be CEO, passing over Roe, Skilling begins dreaming about ways to transform Enron from an old-fashioned company into a glamorous player in the world of high-stakes energy trading. “Why do we have to deliver the gas at all?’’ Skilling asks. “We can send energy through the air in nothing but numbers.’’
And numbers are the specialty of the nerdy but ambitious Andrew Fastow (Greg Ferrisi). Exploiting regulatory loopholes, Fastow devises what he calls “a shadow company, a virtual Enron.’’ Soon Enron’s stock is soaring, and a compliant business press is hailing the company as, in the words of one gushing TV reporter, “the light of the new economy.’’
Faced with all this material, Prebble, a British playwright, tried to wrap a soul-searing indictment of corporate America within a rambunctious satire. “Enron’’ makes use of multimedia elements (video images of Bill Clinton denying he had sexual relations with “that woman,’’ George W. Bush taking the oath of office) and song-and-dance numbers (raucous routines featuring a shirt-and-tie-wearing ensemble who provide comic commentary on the action).
That diffused focus may explain why Prebble’s play, after faring well with London audiences, had a short-lived run on Broadway earlier this year.
There are stretches of dialogue overstuffed with insider business jargon, but Prebble also lands a few blows on some richly deserving targets. In one scene, Skilling is confronted by two workers who represent the thousands of Enron employees who lost their jobs, pensions, and life savings to his skullduggery.
But an even better image for our times is supplied by three “raptors’’ who shadow Skilling and Fastow. Played by actors in red-eyed masks, they are meant to signify all the debt and risk Enron was concealing. Of course, then as now, it was the rest of us who were being put at risk by the real-life raptors in suits.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.