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Art anticipates Enron in Wellfleet

Professional Skepticism
By James Rasheed. Directed by Jason Slavick. Set by Dan Joy. Costumes by Nicoletta Lyons. Lighting by Christopher Ostrom. Sound by Julie Pittman. With Marianna Bassham, Chris Faith, Robert Pemberton, and Yaegel Welch. At Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, Wellfleet, through July 27.

When James Rasheed switched careers, from accounting to playwriting, he clearly took to heart that timeworn piece of advice to fledgling authors — to write about what you know. Obviously blessed with Cassandra-like powers of prophecy as well as with the secrets lost in the shredding machines, Rasheed penned Professional Skepticism before the Enron and WorldCom scandals became front-page headlines.

The play is set in August 2000 in a Big Five accounting firm in Charleston, South Carolina, where the junior staff members are working their way up the food chain by devouring everyone around them. The play is very timely, but don’t accuse Rasheed of overconfidence. Although his work won both the Brandeis University Herbert and Nancy Beigel New Play Premiere and the 2000-2001 Harold and Mimi Steinberg Prize for Best Original Play, he maintains his certified public accountant’s license and keeps a day job at the numbers.

In its world-premiere production at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, Professional Skepticism conveys a refreshing choice of subject matter (no broken hearts or gender-challenged relationships here) and an air of cynicism that informs its plot line. But when it comes to character, Rasheed tends to think in black-and-white. Leo, the office bully, gets off on ordering his lowly assistants to run unreasonable errands, though he has a damaging flaw he keeps to himself. Paul, the nerdy little guy with the glasses and the K-Mart tie, preaches morality until he understands the need for a more effective game plan. Greg, the token black in the firm who aces the CPA exam, changes sides depending on the drift of power, with loyalty or friendship never a consideration. And Margaret, the sole woman, seems to have burrowed into the corporate structure by sheer intuition and a motto of " hands off " — at least on company time. The structure recalls those 19th-century melodramas where no bad deed goes unpunished.

Paul uncovers several discrepancies in an important firm audit, but his gentle whistle blowing produces no results until he cooks up a scheme of his own to get revenge on his supposed buddies. It’s difficult to buy his motivation, which seems as murky as Iago’s — even though he’d been the target of some Lord of the Flies–type antics in act one. By the end of the play, when he’s screwed his friends, you’re left with no sympathy for any of the characters. Another difficulty is the timing of Paul’s conversion from nerd to king of the mountain: it seems to take place while the audience is out for intermission. His transformation is a great gimmick, especially as it affects his appearance, but it seems incongruous given the personality that Rasheed has established for him.

This playwright does know how to create snappy dialogue, however, and he’s aided immensely by the savvy actors and fast-paced WHAT production directed by Jason Slavick, literary manager and education coordinator for Boston Theatre Works. Robert Pemberton, who won the 2002 Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding Actor, makes a Gordon Gecko–like Leo, with just the proper mix of wisecracking and malice. Marianna Bassham is pluperfect as Margaret, who’s busy playing all sides while pretending to a self-confidence she can’t quite manage. Yaegel Welch, as Greg, is so laid back that it’s unclear whether he means the zingers that come out of his mouth. And though Chris Faith, as Paul, doesn’t quite pull off the Superman switcheroo, when he scales back the oversized reactions that telegraph his intentions (too much mugging for the tiny WHAT space, where every member of the audience is almost in touching distance of the actors), his performance will be one of the highlights of the summer season.

Dan Joy, the house scenic designer, has come up with as sterile a company office as you could imagine, a colorless box where any number of nefarious deeds can take place and then be erased for the next set of schemes. The set changes are made by an unidentified stagehand with a personality of his own: he grooves in time to the muzak as he slinks on to move the water glasses and stacks of files. One might wish that Professional Skepticism delivered the stage truth of Other People’s Money, a better play that blasts the corporate slugs. But it’s amusing to watch a theater piece that’s so closely allied to the news of the day.

Issue Date: July 11 - 18, 2002
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