Enron, once the most audacious of America’s Fortune 500 high-rollers, comes to life (and death) with thrilling theatrical audacity as The Production Company returns to L.A.’s 99-seat theater scene with the Los Angeles Premiere of Lucy Prebble’s 2009 West End smash Enron.
What could have been a dull, dry history lecture in the hands of a less gifted playwright ends up quite the opposite in Prebble’s, a excitingly entertaining black comedy that integrates Broadway-style production numbers while turning complex business practices like “mark-to-market” (declaring future income as today’s earnings) into concepts even the dullest audience members will get.
We first meet 40ish high finance star Jeffrey Skilling (Skip Pipo) at a corporate party a decade or so before Enrons’s 2001 crash-and-burn, a fête during which Texas billionaire Ken Lay (Alex Egan) picks Jeff over Claudia Roe (Ferrell Marshall) to head Enron, opting for Skilling’s innovative plan to turn Enron from a gas-and-oil company to one selling energy (“Why do we even have to deliver the gas at all?”) over the more traditional approach advocated by the world’s 14th most powerful woman.
Before long, whiz-kid accountant Andy Fastow (David Lombard) has joined the Enron team as Chief Financial Officer with a scheme to divert Enron’s rapidly rising debts into shadow companies, a plan that is both genius and the company’s downfall.
Meanwhile, under Skilling’s leadership, Enron transitions from simply supplying energy to trading in it (whether or not it actually exists being beside the point) in addition to selling shares in the Internet, broadband video (without the technological means to provide it), and even, if you can believe it, the weather.
Playwright Prebble’s particular brand of genius is to turn contemporary history into a theatrical extravaganza that works whether Broadway-scale or in one of L.A.’s more intimate blackboxes.
Enron marks not only TheProdCo’s first production in eighteen months but their return to Hollywood’s The Lex, whose matchbox stage director August Viverito uses quite masterfully indeed, aided and abetted by assistant director T L Kolman and choreographer Nancy Dobbs Owen.
Want to illustrate how debt can be shoveled into shadow companies? Do so with steadily shrinking boxes-inside-boxes, Russian Doll-style, a flickering red light inside the smallest box indicating the actual, minuscule investment.
Want to suggest the double-dealing of accounting firm Arthur Anderson? Do so with a ventriloquist and his identically dressed dummy (the Joanna Strapp-designed “Little Arthur Anderson”).
Want to bring the soon-to-be-bankrupt Lehman Brothers to life? Have them speak in perfectly-synched unison while conjoined inside a single business suit.
Want to show the ever-present danger posed by Fastow’s shell companies inside which debts were hidden? Have the “raptors” he describes be played by actors in Jurassic Park-style masks with lit red eyes, hungrily devouring the dollar bills he feeds them in a last-minute attempt to stave off disaster.
Add to all of the above a song-and-dance number to accompany a commodities-trading sequence and a thrilling eight-combatant Star Wars-style light saber duel to illustrate California’s electricity deregulation and Enron simply could not be more theatrical.
Under Viverito’s panache-y direction, numerous scenes stand out, including those depicting the excitement of the trading floor, Fastow’s talk-and-run job interview atop a virtual treadmill as he attempts to keep up with Skilling by his side, and even the show’s lickety-split scene changes.
Both leading players and featured performers deliver pitch-perfect performances beginning with Pipo, whose star turn as the arrogant, ruthless, visionary Jeff Skilling turns the Enron head honcho into a modern-day Icarus on a journey from soaring triumph to humiliating defeat.
Egan is sensational too as billionaire Ken Lay, a Texas good ol’ boy whose folksy manner masks a man every bit as greedy and cutthroat as a more obvious villain might be.
A fabulous Marshall is sexy, sassy, bold, and brassy as blonde bombshell Claudia Roe, a composite of several female Enron execs (for reasons of legality, one presumes).
Lombard is mesmerizing as Andy Fastow, a man with a genius at “creative” accounting that is matched only by his ambition and social ineptitude, the actor meriting added snaps for some attention-getting box-stacking between acts.
As for the triple-threat ensemble, each and every one gets his or her chance to dazzle in multiple roles including traders, raptors, blind mice, and more, with snaps to Alex Best (and his ventriolquist’s dummy) as Arthur Anderson, Julia Buis as a 25-year employee whose faith in Enron cost her $150,000, Rainy Fields giving childlike voice to video images of Skilling’s precocious daughter, AJ Jones and Luke McClure as the Siamese-twin Lehman Brothers and Jones’s solo turn as Skilling’s lawyer, Judy Nazemetz as professional stock analyst Sharon Sloman, Jed Reynolds as a security guard who lives to regret opting for stock option bonuses instead of cash, and Johnny Patrick Yoder as a pair of officers (court and police).
Design-wise, Enron is a winner too, beginning with Viverito’s LED-light-filled set, one of his finest and most ambitious scenic designs, complemented by Tiger Reel’s exciting animations and projections and matched by Viverito’s own dramatic sound design. Matt Richter’s terrific lighting adds immeasurably to the evening’s electricity as well. As for Kelly Graham’s costumes, they combine period-perfect office wear and deliciously fanciful fantasy duds.
Owen’s inventive choreography (which her cast execute quite splendidly with Yoder as dance captain) and McClure’s exhilarating fight choreography both deserve thumbs up as does Daniel Halden’s vocal direction of barbershop foursome Buis, Jones, McClure, and Nazemetz.
Enron is produced by Kolman and Viverito. Scott Fleming is stage manager.
To its Scenie-winning Best Productions of The Beauty Queen Of Leenane, Working, and Amadeus (to name just three) can now be added The Production Company’s Enron. If TheProdCo’s much-awaited return is already something to be celebrated, a Los Angeles Premiere as all-around splendid as this one gives it event status.
The Production Company at the Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Avenue, Hollywood.
May 22, 2015
Photos: Joanna Strapp