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Review: In Playhouse's 'Enron,' weighty topic, hefty dose of satire, sip of surreal

By Bob Fischbach / Omaha World-Herald staff writer

It’s a corporate-morality play, with a dash of musical theater, a pinch of the surreal, a strong streak of satire. It’s howlingly funny in spots, yet so deadly tragic in others it takes your breath away.

Above all, “Enron,” which opened Friday at the Omaha Community Playhouse, is gripping theater — well-acted, smartly staged, verbally and visually bursting with ideas. It somehow manages to be vastly entertaining while never making light of its heavy subject matter.

That this real-life story has its roots in Omaha adds to its impact on local audiences. Enron, once the nation’s largest energy corporation, was formed in 1986 when Northern Natural Gas merged with Houston Natural Gas. The company unexpectedly moved its corporate headquarters to Houston, costing the city 2,000 jobs and leaving it in an economic funk.

What happened after that is now the stuff of notorious legend, which Lucy Prebble’s play explores with real bite. The company’s emphasis on pipelines is ditched in favor of energy commodity trading, new technology, managing financial risk. Standard bookkeeping practices are abandoned in favor of phantom corporations created to hide debt and losses. Corporate profits are tallied before actually being realized.

If you think this sounds too business-wonky, stick around. The show depicts Enron’s board as blind mice, accounting firm Arthur Andersen as a ventriloquist and dummy, investment bank Lehman Brothers as Siamese twins with no spine at all, and those debt-eating dummy corporations as snarling raptors — business suits with dinosaur heads, complete with sharp teeth and glowing red eyes.

That’s because Andy Fastow, Enron’s wunderkind finance officer, is a fan of “Jurassic Park.” He also likes “Star Wars” a lot, so Enron’s rapacious commodity traders label their strategies things like “death star” (creating California’s electric-energy crisis). Even Lydia Dawson’s trader costumes, complete with neon tubing, suggest carnival-show hucksters who duel with lightsabers.

But the main characters at the story’s heart are all too real and human. Director Kimberly Faith Hickman pulls standout performances from all four veteran actors.

Connie Lee hits all the right notes as Claudia Roe, a hard-edged career woman who loses out in her bid to become company president and focus on power plants.

Paul Schneider seems perfectly cast as Ken Lay, the chief executive officer who preferred schmoozing with politicians and power brokers, leaving the daily details to his ambitious underlings.

Chris Shonka brings desperation, and later repentance, to the role of finance officer Fastow, whose shadow-corporation house of cards sends Enron’s stock price soaring.

Matthew Pyle dominates the show as ambitious, unrepentant Jeff Skilling, whose free-wheeling strategies and amoral view of profitmaking lead to bankruptcy and prison.

Standouts in a 10-member chorus, playing multiple roles, include Mary Slater as a fawning congresswoman, Danielle Smith as a bedazzled financial analyst, Raydell Cordell III as a security guard, Steve Hartman as Arthur Andersen and Jamie Lewis as Skilling’s attorney.

Lindsay Jones and Jim Boggess produced original music and arrangements, including a barbershop quartet, that add much to the piece. John Gibilisco’s sound design works overtime, effectively combining with Jim Othuse’s lighting effects for some spooky ambiance in the bowels of Fastow’s lair.

Othuse’s sleek set, featuring sliding glass panels below and metal overhanging balconies for Lay and Skilling’s offices, reinforces Enron’s razzle-dazzle image.

This isn’t kid stuff. “Enron” contains lots of profanity and a dash of sexual misbehavior.

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