Monday, April 26, 2010

Enron: What Went Wrong?

What Went Wrong? Not with the company, we know that: A couple of smartass guys thought lying and fabricating because they were ‘smarter’ than everyone else was OK, their riches their due, and consequently they totally screwed employees and shareholders numbering in the tens of thousands out of billions of dollars. Hubris abounded.

The play “Enron,” though. What went wrong with the play? I read the script before I saw the production, and though I wondered how some bits might be effectively staged, it held together for me on the page. But last night at the Broadhurst Theatre, it fell apart like Skilling and Fastow’s black box of nothing.

Some of this is probably due to razzmatazz -- initially the musical numbers were fun, then they dragged on and kept the action of the story from moving forward. Lucy Prebble’s script does dictate some physical actions to illustrate the fast-moving rise of Skilling’s Enron, but the director and choreographer seemed to be camouflaging some missing scenes.

The actors do well by the script – Norbert Leo Butz as Jeff Skilling was skeevy and pathetic, journeying from the dumpy to the buff, the resentful whiz kid to the mean victor of the spoils and the despoiler of the victims of his fraud. Terrific, funny, snappy, with a bounding energy, Butz did his damnedest to carry us along. Stephen Kunken, last seen as the Stage Manager in David Cromer’s “Our Town,”was Andy Fastow, even nerdier than Skilling, utterly inept socially, the butt of ridicule from childhood into his thirties. Finally as CFO he gets his turn, and he is crass and arrogant and mean. Lots of mean in this play – presumably Enron’s corporate culture was rude and crude. Gregory Itzin is charming, false, lazy, slimy as Ken Lay. Marin Mazzie as Claudia Roe initially struck me as a young for the role – as did Itzin for Ken Lay. Both handled the roles well, however, although Mazzie was a tad loud in the first act.

Enron” the play has an array of animals – three blind mice that look like rats, several raptors, and traders. That’s the good part. The primary characters are well done. The scenes of the excess testosterone leading to choreographed violence are terrific. Not only did the four main characters do excellent work, the entire cast did.

In general the visuals are stunning, evocative of the chaos, the stress, the glaring madness and the highs of the ‘90s, with excellent contributions by Mark Henderson (lighting), Anthony Ward (set and costume design), and Jon Driscoll (videos and projections).

But an extremely important scene regarding the Enron Traders devastating the state of California was lost. Couldn’t hear a thing -- therefore a thumbs down to sound design by Adam Cork -- because the stage was cluttered with shouting choreography and laser swords. Please. That’s another thumbs down to Scott Ambler’s choreography. Ultimately, of course, the responsibility lies with director Rupert Goold. Reading Lucy Prebble’s script, it works quite well in these vital scenes – they’re damning to Enron and its traders, but only if we can hear it. Bare on the page, the words were powerful and left me breathless in shock. On the stage --yes, we all get the symbolism of the darkened stage and the use of the lasers, but the words were obfuscated and that was a shame.

This production made me think of “Chess” in that all the leading actors in its NY production were 10-15 years too young for the roles, so the story made no sense at all. Maybe “Enron,” too, worked better in Britain, where they didn’t slice up the script as was done here. Perhaps the actors didn’t leap around the stage with unnecessary choreography and jump frog over plot points. Somehow this play ran 2.5 hours without finding a theatrical end to the story.

As it stands on Broadway, the loud packaging is drowning out the content of the play I read. The jaw-dropping war fought against the state of California by Enron is devastating on the page and meaningless on the stage. Cut the laser-saber dance please. It seems to me that Rupert Goold , who also directed in London, couldn’t decide 1) what the play’s about and 2) what style/genre it is. Is this a drama or is it a satire? What’s showing up is an unbalanced mix and a bit of a mess, and right now “Enron” is not rising to the occasion.

Is this the right time for this play? You betcha. Is this the right play? Not quite.

Ms. Prebble may be too busy manipulating the audience’s emotions, the anger that already exists, pushing buttons, to pay attention to the basic requirements of a play: conflict and resolution.

  • Conflict existed in the first half of the play, clear and dynamic conflict between Roe and Skilling -- but it left at intermission.
  • Resolution as it stands is that Skilling goes to prison, but that’s not theatrical resolution. Theatrical resolution was absent.

Skilling’s journey is Enron’s journey. His transformation from a nerd with no social skills to trim glad-hander is impressive in Butz’s performance and in his excellent costume design -- from a sloppy back office suit to a well-tailored suit to an orange jumpsuit. Besides the clothes and the rags to riches, did Skilling learn anything on his journey? Nothing.

While that may be reflective of reality, it’s not Theatre.

~ Molly Matera, disappointed and signing off.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Red Runs Through It

About a month ago, I saw two plays in one week. I very much enjoyed the first, despite its flaws. But the second eclipsed it utterly. So, what to say?

In the first play, Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane, the characters are sketched, then shaded, filled in, developed. Unfortunately Mr. McDonagh did not take the time to do the same for the story. This reminded me of … well, me.

Whether sketching or writing, I have trouble with composition, structure. I must revise, rewrite, reconsider. Redo, redo, redo. Cut my darling lines and phrases for the sake of the story, and redraw an entire piece because I started in the wrong place on the page. As you might imagine, this hurts even more in drawing than in writing.

In A Behanding in Spokane, McDonagh wrote enticing characters, funny, flawed people. This Irish-English playwright -- who swore off playwriting four years ago -- nonetheless created distinctly American people in a decidedly American place, as well as a lot of funny dialogue and monologues. However, all its parts do not sum to a complete play.

John Logan’s Red, on the other hand, achieves fascinating, colored, shaded, multi-dimensional character development and a coherent and cohesive story. It is a play with a beginning, a middle, and an end. This play is GORGEOUS.

McDonagh achieves Aristotle’s tenet of Unity of Time and Place. So, of course, do many sitcoms. Clearly Aristotle was limited in his expectations, since what McDonagh absolutely did not achieve was The Lieutenant of Inishmore.

Logan achieves Unity of Place. Time does not seem to exist, although two years go by in the telling of Red’s tale.

Scenic Design:
Scott Pask created a cheesy hotel room from the walls to the floor to the furnishings. The set, washed out but not clean, tells the story of the people. The ceiling is cracked and peeling, the wallpaper faded and tattered, and the house curtain that hid the set at the beginning, middle, and end of the play was the same -- faded and tattered and torn. A brilliant design by Pask.

On the other hand, Christopher Oram created an artist’s working studio. It seems so simple – canvases leaning on raw walls, a workbench, a working sink. But by using the actors to affect the change of scenes and times -- the actors moving huge canvases from back to front to over there, around the space – Oram and director Michael Grandage showed time passing, seasons turning. This use of the set pieces showed a relationship building, proving theatre a truly collaborative art form. The scenic design was not merely visual, it was an active participant in the telling the story of Rothko and “Art” in his time.

A Behanding in Spokane
The curtain rises on Christopher Walken as Carmichael. Unfortunately the audience applauds. Mr. Walken is not in need of applause just for showing up. He does a good job, although he does spend too much time facing away from the other characters and out to the audience – even occasionally facing the back wall.
Sam Rockwell is Mervyn, the hotel “receptionist” (he objects to the term), a speed freak, joe schmoe without much working in the brain pan. He’s remarkably funny. He has a monologue that actually stays in tune with the timing of the play, in front of that curtain that looks just like the hotel room, and it’s riveting. (Would it be riveting with a lesser actor? Only time in regional theatre will tell.)
Zoe Kazan plays Marilyn, tiny, dumb and clever. Kazan plays her alternately breathlessly and shrilly.
Marilyn’s gangly boyfriend Toby is ably played by Anthony Mackie. The pair are sad sack con artists and very funny. Unfortunately as I watched Mackie, whom I quite like, I thought of at least two other actors I’d be just as happy to see in the role.

Just two – Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko, and Eddie Redmayne as his assistant. I’ll see Molina in anything. He commands the stage effortlessly and he brings Rothko to life. You’ve probably never heard of Redmayne before, but that slight young man is Molina’s equal on the stage, which is saying quite a lot.
It’s a shorter list, but neither simpler nor lesser. These two actors blow away all the clouds in your mind, the roof of the theatre, anything that interferes with the audience’s total involvement in these men’s lives, thoughts, breaths, every moment.

Both plays are very well executed.

John Crowley directs McDonagh’s play as if he were the playwright’s soul mate, a twin. Nothing is off-key. The issue, in my mind, is the play itself. Could Crowley have directed “A Behanding in Spokane” so that I wouldn’t have noticed or cared about the drawbacks of the script? Possibly, yet… I doubt it. Crowley and McDonagh are in tune. It’s the play.

Michael Grandage directed “Red” seamlessly. Living in this play as much as seeing it, one might fairly wonder, “Was there a director?” Or did this magic just spring to life like Athena from the head of Zeus? Did the set (see above), the sound and words and actors and lights and everything just come to be without a guiding hand? Not to go Creationist on anyone, I doubt it. The script is fabulous, but even brilliant plays may not live up to their potential in lesser hands than Michael Grandage’s. His vision of this play clarifies and focuses it, he brings it forward, makes it three-dimensional. When I read a play that works, it “stands up” in my mind’s eye. Grandage makes this happen on stage at the Golden Theatre. The Donmar Warehouse gave Grandage two extraordinarily alive actors, a courageously imaginative script, a scenic design with total comprehension of Rothko’s physical reality, and “Red” appeared. Art, craft, skill, heart, passion, guts – these live in the production of “Red” on Broadway right now at the Golden Theatre, but only until June – don’t wait.

Both plays are about 90 minutes long without intermission. West 45th Street is very crowded between 9:30 and ten o’clock of late. I like 90-minute evenings. It’s not that I have a short attention span; I just find most secondnd acts to be padded with blather.

A Behanding in Spokane is not quite a play, although it is entertaining.

RED is riveting, wrenching, relentless, revelatory (I say this because no person or thing has ever made me want to sit in a museum to stare at a two-dimensional painting for hours on end – until “Red.”) And, the performances of those two men are truly astonishing.

~ Molly Matera, signing off. Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Polanski Meets Hitchcock

The Ghost Writer is a gray film, its colors cold, washed out, even tired. Its people tend that way as well. As the film begins, we see cars driving around another car abandoned on a ferry. This is accomplished calmly, without rancor, establishing that we are nowhere near an urban center like New York City. Next we see a body, fully clothed, lapped by cold gray waves on a shoreline.

We soon learn that the car and the body pertain to the ‘suicide’ of one Michael McAra, the last and now late ghost writer for the voluminous memoirs of Adam Lang, former Prime Minister of Britain.

In directing The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski channels Alfred Hitchcock as well as his composer Alexandre Desplat’s delicious score channels Bernard Hermann. Result: A terrific thriller reminiscent of Hitchcock’s black-and-white era. The screenplay is by Polanski and Robert Harris based on the latter’s novel. Whether a political thriller or a suspense tale with “Politics” as the MacGuffin, The Ghost Writer is engrossing and stunning, taut and suspenseful. The actors are quiet, intense, naturalistic without slowing the pace. Rages have meaning from controlled people. Violence -- even talk of violence -- is as shocking here as in real life. The Ghost Writer leaves questions in the mind and chilly images in the mind’s eye.

Pierce Brosnan plays Adam Lang, the Tony Blairish ex-Prime Minister of Britain, and a man in dire need of a ghost writer for his memoirs. Brosnan ages like fine single malt whiskey; he’s much more interesting now than in the days of "Remington Steele" and his 007, which he clearly demonstrated in The Matador. His true mettle has developed as have those fine lines empowering this mature actor. He’s fun, he’s sleazy, he’s broken. Brosnan has distilled himself into my “see him in anything except Mama Mia” category. Here his drearily familiar ex-Prime Minister of a drearily familiar U.K. is sliding into the terribly dreary and depressing here and now as he tries to enter the private phase of his life, once those dratted memoirs are written. The world politics that made it to the papers in the last decade are in this story, and the players are very tired.

Olivia Williams as Ruth Lang, wife of the ex-Prime Minister, is the mystery she ought to be. She’s cold, she’s passionate, she’s angry, strong, brittle – everything but passive. Williams, too, improves with age – although not in a mellow manner. Williams’ Ruth is not a traditional political wife – she is assuredly an equal to her screen husband. She drives and advises him. If Adam Lang is in any part guilty of anything of which he’s accused in this story, Ruth Lang is his equal partner in that as well.

An initially unrecognizable Kim Cattrall plays Amelia Bly, right-hand to the ex-PM and whatever else he needs, adding to the tension of an unhappy household. Cattrall is the cool to cold prim one – what Olivia Williams usually plays. I enjoyed the change.

Ewan McGregor is the Ghost Writer. That’s it. He doesn’t have a name. He is the slate on which everyone else writes. His new employers treat him as a lesser being, there to serve – as indeed he is. The bits of manuscript we hear as he reads the assignment are quite dreadful. They need him, yet only to polish, slicken. Writer as housekeeper. Ghost writing appears to be the least appealing job a writer can have. He introduces himself to Adam Lang as “your ghost.” He’s already given up. Of course, the choice of this Ghost Writer is suspect in itself – apparently this Englishman is apolitical and barely cognizant of his own country’s involvement in recent world events. Perfect fodder for politicians and publicists to use and mold. It would seem an obvious way to impart information to the audience, but it’s done well.

Those are the primary characters. Time: Now. Place: An isolated island along the New England coast, requiring a ferry for access. On said island an equally isolated beach house with fantastic windows. The house is on loan from the ex-PM’s American publisher. Adam Lang, ex-PM of the U.K. (an island nation), has a wife as British as he is, an American lawyer, an American publisher, an American chief of staff, and an American hideout from the Press and the World on an American island. These facts barely give us pause as we are directed to focus on the setting.

This setting provides the opportunity for glorious cinematography. Blacks, whites, and all the grays in between dominate this film despite the fact that it is in color. It also gives us the opportunity to see the other view of this spectacular vacation home: Through the windows we see the caretaker (husband of the cook, of course) attempting to sweep the deck clean of the beach detritus, which the wind promptly re-deposits. These delightful scenes within scenes can bear more than one interpretation, but my favorite is that even where there is no upstairs, there will always be a downstairs. A masterly touch.

As pieces of the ex-PM’s personal hell unfold and ramifications of his political acts and choices reveal a tarnished legacy, his Ghost Writer is less and less a clean slate. He discovers a writer’s drive for truth, investigating almost against his will. The anonymous Ghost Writer is the point-of-view character, and although we know next to nothing about him, we are on his side.

The story's build is lovely. Step by step, it is as unforced as the lowering skies of this overcast northern coast, casting shadows over everyone and everything.

A nameless Englishman accosts the Ghost Writer in his hotel bar. Reporters appear the next morning, forcing the Ghost Writer to move into the ultramodern vacation house – into the room of Mike McAra, the last Ghost Writer. Of course some of that writer’s research is hidden in the room and found by the new Ghost Writer. The past will always bite the present players in the ass.

David Rintoul is excellent as that nameless Englishman we first met in the Ghost Writer’s quaint but tomblike hotel. He is revealed as an ex-army man with a bone to pick with Lang’s government. Each of Rintoul’s appearances builds tension in us and the Ghost Writer as we learn more. Sheltering from a not-at-all sudden storm, the Ghost Writer meets an old man who’d lived on the island for half a century. This device was the most blatant in the film. The information imparted by said old man was vital to the Ghost Writer’s collection of facts and suspicions regarding the last ghost writer. Nonetheless, the manner of providing the information was surprisingly clumsy. We forgive it largely because of the surprise appearance of Eli Wallach as the old man

I assume I did not read much about this film, because I didn’t expect the additional pleasure of seeing Tom Wilkinson as an American professor both Ruth and Adam knew in their university days. Timothy Hutton is a subdued yet crass American attorney to the British ex-PM, and Jim Belushi is the brash and bald American publisher. The ghost writer’s agent is smarmily played by Jon Bernthal.

When it comes to political sophistication, Roman Polanski is to Alfred Hitchcock as the Marx Brothers are to the Three Stooges. The Ghost Writer’s political MacGuffin brought to mind Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent as well as The Secret Agent. The politics in each are topical, emotional, yet broad enough to allow the films to work just fine in the decades following their original release dates. After all, there’s really nothing new under the sun or clouds. In Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent and even more so in The Secret Agent, news travels very slowly. In our times and in The Ghost Writer, too much information spreads too quickly, like a jumbled game of “telephone.” No truth will ever be culled from voluminous manuscripts or 12-second sound bytes.

The film is executed excellently by its cast, filmed beautifully by cinematographer Pawel Edelman, scored to perfection by Alexandre Deplat, and succinctly edited by Hervé de Luze.

This film kept me tense despite the occasional dark chuckle, gasping where appropriate (and maneuvered), and actually surprised me a few times. I like intelligent films that respect their audiences, and The Ghost Writer is one. For fear of lessening a single moment of suspense, that’s all I’m going to say on the matter to those who have yet to see it. As Horvendile said in his blog -- -- let’s talk for a few hours after you see this movie. Followed by a marathon of 1930s Hitchcock films.

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer, but not the light. Need to read Harris' novel....