Like its doomed namesake, ENRON certainly doesn't lack for chutzpah. Not with the unnamed attorney played by James Anderson stipulating in the opening prologue that we're about to be lied to: "When we tell you [former Enron president Jeffrey Skilling's] story, you should know it could never be exactly what happened. But we're going to put it together and sell it to you as the truth."
Were that the only similarity between the stage play and its subject, this review would likely be a lot more affirming. But the razzle-dazzle evoked in the many moving parts of Burning Coal Theatre's season opener—a multimedia mash that includes archival news video, puppets, scene work, choreography and a little song and burlesque—still didn't effectively conceal the major deficit of so many "current events" plays: the threadbare characterizations at its core.
When Claudia Roe (Jenn Suchanec), a fictionalized composite character, seems more dimensional than the real people depicted (including Skilling and CEO Ken Lay), something's clearly amiss. Unfortunately, as things stand, the three raptors (CFO Andrew Fastow's term for the fractal holding companies that put Enron under) designed by Samantha Corey aren't the only puppets on the Burning Coal stage.
Much, but not all, of the blame lies with Lucy Prebble's script. Her Skilling is such a melodramatic villain that one wonders why she bothered with a clearly perfunctory effort to put any flesh on his bones, in ever briefer scenes between him and his daughter. But under Jerome Davis' direction, Nick Berg Barnes' work as Skilling seems nearly a duplicate of his role in the Coal's April production of The Shape of the Table—and fills that actor's quota for over-the-top blowhards for the foreseeable future.
Signaling problems to come, Prebble simply dumps us in the first scene alongside Skilling, who's being a total jerk at a business party, without giving us an inkling why he's so steamed at Roe, his present circumstance and life in general. Although Skilling and Roe snipe at each other in catty, rapid and interesting repartee, those fusillades keep giving way to stodgy discussions of plot points. It doesn't help that much of the abundant exposition—in boardrooms, TV news snippets, over beers, even during office-desk sex—unpacks the intricacies of finance, not people's psyches.
There's no shortage of comedy under Davis' direction, abetted by the brisk choreography of Robin Harris. What's nearly an orgy of sexualized deregulated trading in electricity (which caused the California energy crisis in 2001) is set to Bad Company's "Feel Like Makin' Love." As Fastow, John Allore slowly, rewardingly comes unhinged as his manic character get a little too enamored of his macabre raptors in an underground lair designed by Drew Boyce.
It's worth noting that Skilling's final defense—economic bubbles like Enron's are needed for every advance of civilization—is worthy of extended consideration. Unfortunately, even the briefly glimpsed victims, who lost everything in what was then the largest financial collapse in history, wind up like most of Prebble's characters—as theatrical scarecrows that rarely flesh out the controversial characters, positions and implications in her largely unfortunate script.