Now that the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (aka Dodd-Frank) is at risk of repeal and the Treasury Department is the fief of a former Goldman Sachs partner, the times are ripe for a comedy about big business on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Gemini CollisionWorks’ Enterprise delivers but with a twist: the humor builds not from the absurdities of corporate culture, mined by shows like The Office and Workaholics, but from language whose concerns are as far removed from numbers crunching as you could get. Bankruptcy looms in Enterprise mostly because the four employees of an unspecified company who are its focus seem better trained for academia’s ivory tower (in the English or Linguistics departments) than a glass and steel midtown skyscraper.
In fact, these suits, who go by the names of Sanders, Landry, Weaver and Owens (played by a first-rate cast of Fred Backus, Adam Files, Derrick Peterson and Alyssa Simon) can identify literary devices and debate points of grammar; their sustained verbal one upmanship reveals knowledge of Dutch, Welsh, Finnish, French, Spanish and German, and they spend more time worrying over lexical choices (“What’s ‘beguileful’? Is that like knavery?”) than data sets. But the content is anything but professorial; their banter is showcased through a series of lightening-fast scenes that sometimes function purely as jokes, and Ian W. Hill’s direction has the pacing of a stand-up routine. Here’s an example that sounds like a knock-knock joke, about a thesaurus, between Sanders and Weaver: “What’s that? / A thesaurus. I found it on a secretary’s desk. / What’s it for? / Synonyms. / Like for synonym buns.” In short, this quartet easily proves nimbler at witty repartee than finding ideas to pitch the “Chairman” to improve the company’s bottom line.
Enterprise is the tenth play by Brian Parks, a former Arts and Culture editor at the Village Voice, whose work includes Americana Absurdum (winner of the Scotsman Fringe First award at Edinburgh in 2000). His coin is language, not base currency, and despite his characters’ embarrassingly bad word play, these employees seem intrinsically aware that speech is man’s most powerful tool, however much man’s ability to turn a profit would like to disprove it.
In one particular scene, the respective values of language and numbers duke it out when Sanders wants to use highlighters (which he calls, with exaggerated grandiloquence, “the wands of importance”) to emphasize key language in his proposal. Weaver, on the other hand, prefers “math of the finest gossamer.” Indirectly, their sparring will prove that, while statistics might have predictability on its side, that’s nothing compared to the leaps and pirouettes that words can turn.
Samuel Beckett supposedly began writing in French to reign in his relish for linguistic play in English. At times, Parks’ characters could be the offspring of the young Belacqua from More Pricks Than Kicks, spouting off merely because they can, and using their frequently bawdy and off-color language as a weapon against the world’s less intelligent souls. Take, for example, this circumlocution of an insult: “You mother-birthing son of an aunt-poking cousin’s sister-cussing father’s dog-kicking godchild’s puking stepbrother of a foster delinquent’s phlegm-snorting long-lost pity-adopted twin of a half-niece’s semi-autistic au pair’s bastard’s twice-removed black-sheep nephew’s eldest sibling’s great-great-grand-trollop!” Or this retort, to a blinkered colleague: “That’s giving failure a big wet kiss. That’s stroking the nipple of failure’s big, bared, bulbous breast.” Which sets up a pun to finish the scene: “That’s alliterative./ I don’t care what country it’s from, we’re saving this company!” Bah-dum-chhh!
There’s not much of a critique of business practices in Enterprise, but to quote a cynical Landry, in one of the show’s typical punchlines: “It’s OK to care, but everything in moderation.” Business might go unregulated for the foreseeable future, and Enterprise‘s foursome certainly comes to no good, but to paraphrase Shakespeare, the master of comic word play, in whose tradition Parks is also working here, when life gives you a “feast of language,” it would seem stingy not to spend it.