Monday, August 18, 2014

Enron, An Omaha Community Playhouse Production

Hello readers.  After a hiatus from posting, I'm back with a theater review.  On Friday evening I attended the Omaha Community Playhouse production of Enron.  Kimberly Faith Hickman directed this play by Lucy Preeble, which is loosely based on the events that led to Enron’s bankruptcy and the public downfall of its leadership. 

I went into this play expecting dull, well-worn rants against capitalism.  In some respects, I was not surprised.  But the cast and staging was phenomenal, injecting levity and creativity into what otherwise could have been a monotonous story.  (How does one turn financial accounting decisions into a gripping drama?)  

As for the cast, Paul Schneider was a very credible Ken Lay.  Connie Lee (who happens to be Schneider’s wife) was simply fabulous as Claudia Roe, the hard-driving rival to Jeffrey Skilling.   Chris Shonka and Matthew Pyle also turned in creditable performances as Andy Fastow and Jeff Skilling, respectively.

The costumes were wonderful, blending technology, light, and whimsy which added to the story.  (The three blind mice who appeared as Enron directors, the geek and ventriloquist dummy that appeared for Arthur Andersen, and the Raptors that appeared frequently throughout the latter part of the play, were especially wonderful. Not to mention two Lehman Brothers joined as Siamese twins.)  In short, it was a pleasantly engaging production that reflected genuine artistry by the director, all of the performers, and the costume designers and stage managers. 

But Lucy Preeble, the writer, could have given them more, which would have made it a better play.  She would have done well to resist the clichés and seemingly obligatory disrespect offered toward George W. Bush.  Those listing toward the Left simply can’t avoid casting aspersions on Bush as the cause of all which vexes them.  As Skilling and the Enron team longed for deregulation of electricity markets, the Bush v. Gore contest was portrayed as a turning point in the company’s future.  Preeble has Skilling tell us that Enron got along fine with Clinton, but Gore scares him.  Is she suggesting that a Gore victory would somehow have stopped the Enron debacle?

Al Gore has gone on to become a venture capitalist and investor.  His twenty-percent stake in Current TV, which has been sold to Al Jazeera, is in the news today because of disputes over payment of nearly $500 million.  He may talk a good game about environmental issues (while at the same time jetting about and creating a massive carbon footprint), but he is no enemy of capitalist greed. 

Deregulation began in the deep Blue state of California, governed by the RINO Terminator, not with the federal government.  Bad experiences in California are no fault of Bush.  Preeble apparently cannot fathom government run by democrats as being inept at governing.  Instead, she paints them as the friends of the little people, who are clearly the losers after Enron implodes. 

But politics aside, Preeble’s development of Skilling particularly shows her need to cast aspersion on a belief in free markets as the basis for human progress.  In fact, markets ultimately worked very well in exposing Enron’s failures – it just took time for the information to come out.  Markets require information, which was not being provided.  And markets involve humans and all their foibles.  Many people were cajoled by their own vanity into going along when they could not admit they did not understand how Enron was making money (when in fact, it was not).  Pride and vanity are not restricted to capitalist pigs – plenty of socialists have these problems, too.  Preeble apparently finds no irony in a U.S. Senator telling Skilling that the U.S. Government will not tolerate their bad behavior.

The play is still a lot of fun, which was well staged and acted.  But the writer left the most important issues unfocused and, of course, unresolved, while she tilted the dialogue in favor of invectives about corporate greed and self-aggrandizement.  We can all agree that dishonesty and deception give rise to harms that extend far beyond the executive suite and into the lives of many average folks who are just trying to earn a living.  But many executives do not do these things, and instead confer countless benefits on their communities through the capitalist model.  Those executives get adulation when the going is good, but when the populist sentiment turns against them, look out for the mob. 
What is the real solution for the problems presented by dishonesty?  Is a vastly empowered regulatory state really the answer?  Do we really trust government actors to behave competently and honestly with extensive powers, particularly when it is quite clear that they are often co-opted as participants in the nefarious deeds of the greedy capitalists?  Or should we opt for a more limited government role, with greater personal vigilance and diversification to protect ourselves, recognizing that some bad apples will succeed despite the best efforts of government?  Wouldn’t we be better off in a world where government did not have so much power over the success or failure of private ventures?  After all, regulatory costs can harm the working folks, too, when they cannot get jobs.

It seems that Ms. Preeble, like others on the Progressive Left, pines for a world in which all wrongs are righted and all losses are compensated through the intervention of a big and benevolent government.   Unfortunately, that world does not exist, and if we think that empowering government to protect us from all of the downside risks in this life will make life better, we had better wake up and smell the coffee.  Those government actors are just as prone to be deeply flawed as the capitalists they seek to regulate.  Ultimately, we need to ensure we do not lose sight on the importance of character development.  Those lessons our clergy and our mothers and fathers have been teaching us may turn out to be more important than we think.

Criticism aside, I encourage you to enjoy this play for yourselves.  Some may find a few scenes of frank sexual dialogue to be off-putting, and there is ample profanity.  But real actors playing their hearts out convey a dimension of humanity that cannot be duplicated on the screen.  Kudos to all of them for their fine efforts.     



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