TimeLine Theatre always has the best lobby displays in town, and at the intermission of British playwright Lucy Prebble's "Enron," a little crowd was gathered around a monitor playing a documentary about the terrible doings of those who were brought down, along with the Houston-based company they built and the pensions of the little people who trusted them, by their unshakable belief that they were the smartest guys in the room.
That was prima facie evidence of the ongoing interest in those who ran the energy company Enron, one giant internal Ponzi scheme and a notable precursor to so much economic malfeasance — similarly hubristic economic malfeasance — perpetrated by some other guilty guys who've surely not been punished in the way Jeffrey Skilling was punished.
But Prebble's unsubtle play, which I saw on Broadway during the few days it lasted there, is long on flash and short on insight. It also comes with a certain British smugness, a delighting in the opportunity to trot out many a familiar Texas stereotype, rather than step back from those obvious tropes, which contain about as much dramatic interest as a week spent clearing brush on George W. Bush's Texas ranch, and really probe what lay underneath.
Skilling grew up in Aurora and recruited his MBAs from far and wide; what happened at Enron had little or nothing to do with Texas. It was a trans-Atlantic problem, at a minimum, and deeper insights therein do not flow from watching traders screech, viewing the main players having boardroom sex, or witnessing a plethora of hootin' and hollerin.' We already know that what happened at Enron was crass and bad; we come to the theater to better understand why and to where it led.
"Enron" tells the familiar story with a certain zest and plenty of juicy schadenfreude, which can feel good in the moment for us arts majors, but it packs few surprises and rarely rings true.
I was hoping TimeLine would rein in this play and pair down its theatrical excesses; this company has rehabilitated failed Broadway plays before. And it's true that director Rachel Rockwell's more intimate, unified and disciplined production does feature a few engaging and focused performances, including a particularly good one from Sean Fortunato, who plays the notorious CFO Andrew Fastow (who testified against Skilling and thus has already served his time) and turns in an emotional portrait of a fearful man desperate to be seen by Skilling as his intellectual and strategic equal.
In the piece, Prebble slips in a few puppet monsters that wander around Fastow's office, dramatizations of the notorious "raptors," the shell entities that Fastow used to swallow inconvenient Enron debt. These oversized critters liven things up — and you get the sense throughout that Pebble was terrified of writing a play that would be swallowed up by dodgy accounting practices — but they are, at the end of the day, noise.
There's a lot of other noise in this production, which often treats the piece like a dark musical comedy and, alas, does not build dramatic tension in a satisfying way. Actors like Amy Matheny, who plays a composite character of a couple of Enron women, and Terry Hamilton, who plays Kenneth Lay, don't have much depth of character with which to work, frankly. Prebble is more successful with Skilling himself, played quite well here by Bret Tuomi, who captures a lot of the man's restless energy and insecurities as well as his ruthlessness.
The piece is structured with Skilling as a kind of tragic hero, a man who comes to believe in his own boosterism, as if a man could be defined by a stock price. But for that to work, we also have to see Skilling play out on the trading floor of something close to life.
When: Through April 15
Where: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $32-$42 at 773-281-8463 (ext. 6) or timelinetheatre.com