Theater
1:53 pm
Wed July 17, 2002

Professional Skepticism

James Rasheed's comedy about misbehaving accountants deals with pre-Enron corporate corruption.

Wellfleet, MA –

"The sphincter of the heart" -- 18th century writer Matthew Green's description of avarice.

Novelist Philip Roth once infamously noted, with a wry mixture of amazement and envy, that American reality routinely outguns and overtakes the imagination of its writers. Nothing our scribes dream up matches the country's grotesque appetite for excess. So I don't have much hope our playwrights will do justice to the multibillion-dollar crimes of Enron, the shell game of WorldCom, or the accounting gymnastics of Arthur Andersen. When it comes to economic sin, our dramatists are pipsqueaks, unable to make art out of the hyperbolic greed, arrogance, and violence of corporate terrorism. Low-level Mafia goons, like the "Sopranos," are plugged on TV, but the godzillas of greed stomp well beyond reach.

It could be that in America, artists, along with the rest of us, worship success to the point of self-destruction. "Professional Skepticism" touches on this idea, but doesn't punch it nearly hard enough. James Rasheed wrote the play two years ago, well before today's cases of corporate skullduggery. Understandably, the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater is marketing the script's tale of financial wheeling-dealing as an anticipation of Enron and its ilk. But this dark comedy, enjoyable enough on its own terms, is far too modest and superficial to say much about what is happening today on Wall Street. Rasheed is less interested in deconstructing the culture of avarice than in staging a conventional battle of male egos trying to do each other in. This is a classic 'worm turns' plot that happens to be set in one of the Big Five accounting firms. Call it spiked water cooler drama.

A socially inept auditor, Paul, is battered by the daily bullying of his office mates, Leo and Greg, who are jockeying for position as the firm merges with a larger company interested in reducing the work force. Tired of the insults, Paul decides to get his revenge, using his efficiency to trip up his foes' incompetence. The elaborate scheme includes Paul's knowledge of a company's stock manipulation, but his tormentors are not part of the corruption. They are bad guys, but not because of lax corporate ethics. Leo and Greg are sadistic weaklings, mediocre accountants jealous of Paul, who can't defend himself against their snide venom. Given this internecine psychological set-up, "Professional Skepticism" comes off as a study in vengeance that goes out of control, all of which is small potatoes compared to the imperialistic fraud practiced by WorldCom. Today's corporate frauds demand that our dramatists go for the big picture -- Rasheed's play smacks of the past, when we settled for yet another view from the fly-on-the-office-wall.

Still, the playwright is good at the mind games played at work, the vicious gossip masquerading as silly jokes, the secret allegiances and intricate plots, the way anxiety is manipulated every which way down the food chain. I prefer my corporate weasels more colorful than the ones on view here, though the sexual and verbal brutalities of Leo are mildly satisfying. More problematic is Rasheed's language. We don't need another Mamet clone, but his insensitive accountants should speak with more a distinctive tang. Rasheed's inexperience as a playwright shows most when Paul makes his pivotal transformation from nebbish to shark during the intermission. The play sidesteps dramatizing an essential metamorphosis in the world of business: a mouse becomes a louse.

Jason Slavick directs this production with too soft a hand, going for farce when a harder edge is called for. At one point, Leo comes on to Margaret, another employee, with a physical ferocity that suggests rape. But the scene lacks any sense of danger or morbidity. As Leo, Robert Pemberton is fine in a role he could play in his sleep -- a sleazy manipulator who uses his good looks and glib tongue as a weapon. As Greg, Leo's second banana, Yaegel Welch is a bit stiff. Chris Faith is adequate as Paul, but his performance could use more demonic energy -- after all, this is a man who becomes a monstrous cog in the corporate machine. "Professional Skepticism" is an acceptable diversion, but WHAT, a company that prides itself on staging outr? stuff, is pushing conventional product this time around.

The Elizabethan dramatists, especially the seer of suckers, Ben Jonson, caught the energetic poetry and the perversity behind the drive for limitless acquisition, the self-vaulting crimes committed for the sake of vast wealth. That is why "Serious Money," the most satisfying attack on the venality of big business in contemporary drama, takes its inspiration from the lyric epics of Shakespeare and Jonson. Caryl Churchill's 1987 play uses verse to satirize the global chicanery of international banking, proving that, when dealing with banditry on a gigantic scale, the artistic imagination must either keep up or give up.

The Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater production of "Professional Skepticism" runs through July 27, 2002 at the Wellfleet Town Pier in Wellfleet, MA. For tickets, call (508) 349-6835.