Near the conclusion of Lucy Prebble's Enron, a docudrama animated with puppets and choreography about the fabled demise of the $111 billion Houston energy trading company (trumpeted by Forbes for six consecutive years as a model of corporate ingenuity), the firm's now-convicted president, Jeffrey Skilling (Skip Pipo), defiantly rationalizes his actions. These actions include his endorsement of shadow and undeclared offshore companies, the bilking of California's electricity customers, the trading of debt and the announcement of profits that existed only in virtual reality as a way of buttressing the company's stock price — all of which caught up with him when a skeptical reporter asked to see the company's balance sheet. (Enron filed for bankruptcy in 2001.)
In this speech — perhaps the most intriguing argument in the play -— Skilling claims that the people who have accomplished anything of value to human progress have done so in a bubble, where blind faith takes precedence over empirical reality. This is a curiously metaphysical approach to economics, equating the financial industry with religion. And as ridiculous, even perverse, as that sounds, it's almost persuasive.
When you get on a airplane, Skilling explains, you don't question whether or how it will fly. On the face of it, there's no reason to believe that it, or you, can take flight. When most people board an aircraft, they do so from a faith that they can soar above the clouds and return to land safely. That is not reason; that is theology, and most of our lives are governed by it.
If Skilling had been even slightly tethered to the tangible world — had his intense, diabolical ambition been in the service of building something of actual value, something that produced energy rather than merely trading it for virtual profits — he might well have been the genius he imagined himself to be, where prophet and profit align.
The 12-character play was a hit in London, then lasted a mere 12 days on Broadway in 2010. Watching it in Hollywood's intimate Lex Theatre, in a dynamic and skillful production directed by August Viverito, one can appreciate the reasons for the British enthusiasm alongside for the causes of New York's contempt.
Enron is plucked from the headlines, so we know that the giant is going to crash in the forest. The outcome isn't the point. What matters here is Prebble's attempt to demystify the trading-floor convolutions (yes, Enron had its own trading floor) of how much profit could be generated from the ability to conflate perception and misperception. Stock prices are built on confidence, and confidence is built on hyperbole, and hyperbole is built on fibs, which must be believed — until they're not. And then it's over. Bull and bear.
So much of the play's fascination lies in the explanation of financial enigmas within riddles that emerge as fraud. That, for the most part, these same practices continue to be the mechanisms of international finance is Prebble's take-away, and probably the reason that the British responded to it with such enthusiasm.
Americans, however, tend to latch on to characters, and from a character standpoint, Enron is thin stuff. Though Pipo's Skilling, along with Alex Egan's cavalierly deranged company founder, Ken Lay, and David Lombard's henchman Andy Fastow, has a persuasive boardroom ethos, the play sets them on auto-pilot as human beings. This is, of course, the point, but the point grows wearisome. There's a nice spunky turn by Ferrell Marshall as Skilling's lover and competitor, Claudia Roe, who oversees an actual nuclear power plant in India — the most “real” component of Enron — before Skilling throws her under the corporate bus.
Viverito's open set allows the space to transform from offices to trading floor — some lively ensemble scenes there — while Matt Richter's lighting sends green neon hues through free-standing metallic grids, emblematically turning the real into the surreal.
Greenway Arts Alliance's production of The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams' autobiographical and most tender memory play, is entirely traditional in its depiction of a restless young man/narrator, Tom (the fine Brian Foyster) trapped in a St. Louis walkup with his cloying mother, Amanda (Lisa Richards), and chronically shy sister, Laura (Kerry Knuppe). Speaking of living in a bubble, Laura plays with glass toys and listens to old gramophone records in lieu of completing a typing class. What's to become of her?
Directed by Jack Heller and played out on Joel Daavid's realistic set, the play turns on a date set up by Tom for Laura — a “gentleman caller” (Patrick Joseph Rieger), who tries to pull Laura out of her shell. The lovingly detailed production is sometimes overwrought, but the gentleman-caller scene is as good as it gets, turning on Knuppe's piercing sensitivity as Laura and Rieger's slightly clumsy self-confidence. Their chemistry is jaw-dropping.
ENRON | By Lucy Prebble | The Production Company at Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood | Through June 28 | (800) 838-3006 | theprodco.com
THE GLASS MENAGERIE | By Tennessee Williams | Greenway Arts Alliance, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A. | Through June 14 | (323) 655-7679 | greenwayartsalliance.org