A play about crooked accounting practices? My heart sank in the opening moments of “Enron,” the rambunctious drama about the spectacular rise and ignominious fall of the Texas-based energy company, when the phrase “mark to market” kept recurring. Playwrights aren’t usually conversant with concepts of high finance, and most of us theatergoers prefer it that way.
But this British import, written by Lucy Prebble and directed by Rupert Goold, turns out to be one of the most vibrant new offerings on Broadway this season. It’s not that Prebble’s dramatic account is so illuminating — the documentary film “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" does a better job of filling us in on the tricks and tactics that led to what was by 2001 standards the largest corporate bankruptcy in the world.
But the synergy between Prebble’s play and Goold’s staging creates something that could only occur in the theater — a three-dimensional distillation of the greed, fraud and self-serving genius that spelled not just the demise of a company but the emergence of a form of casino capitalism that would by the decade’s end lead to the worst recession since the Great Depression. “Enron,” which had its official opening Tuesday at the Broadhurst Theatre, concentrates on a handful of top executives and ends up hauling in the zeitgeist.
Would you believe that that show often looks and behaves like a musical? Consummate song-and-dance man Norbert Leo Butz (a Tony winner for “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”) stars as Jeffrey Skilling, the nerdy Harvard-educated numbers guy who brought to Enron the concept of “mark to market,” which allows future income, valued at current market prices, to be written down as earnings as soon as deals are signed. Now this wouldn’t seem like the kind of thing to inspire much razzmatazz, but when the company’s stock price starts soaring, all that adrenaline-fueled avarice has a way of putting even socially awkward Skilling in a campy Hugh Jackman mood.
Goold, who directed the strikingly modern “Macbeth” with Patrick Stewart on Broadway in 2008, magnificently orchestrates this layered multimedia extravaganza on a set by Anthony Ward that’s like a mix between a smart phone and a corporate meeting room. The ensuing frenetic kaleidoscope, tricked out with Mark Henderson’s lighting effects, consists of video and projections (imaginatively composed by Jon Driscoll), over-the-top theatrical imagery (such as board members costumed as blind mice and debt-eating “raptors” that look like “Jurassic Park” reptiles) and song-and-dance routines that combine Adam Cork’s twinkling compositions and propulsive sound design with Scott Ambler’s antic choreography.
Amid this dazzling whirlwind, the play unfolds chronologically, beginning with Skilling’s ascent to the highest reaches of management and ending with him behind bars. Head honcho Kenneth Lay (Gregory Itzin) looms above the backroom machinations like a willfully obtuse Southern gentleman, who’d rather not know the details of what’s making him and his fellow big shareholders so rich.
An initial power struggle between Skilling and Claudia Roe (Marin Mazzie) — bedmates for a time, rivals for longer — ends with Skilling gaining control of the direction of the company. The door is now open for him to realize his plan for creating what is, in effect, a financial Frankenstein monster. He is ably assisted in this mad pursuit by Andy Fastow (Stephen Kunken), who has figured out a cunning way of offloading the company’s inconvenient losses from the balance sheet. (Cue the raptors.)
Deregulation expands the scope of Skilling’s marauding. (California bore the brunt of this episode with high energy costs and rolling blackouts.) But even the best Ponzi schemes have to come to an end. And not even having a sympathetic Texan in the White House can save the day. When Wall Street smells weakness, the jig is definitely up.
The agile, gifted trio of Butz, Mazzie and Kunken, decked in Ward’s high-powered costumes, cut spectacularly vivid figures. But “Enron” doesn't aspire to an HBO-style dramatization, with in-depth character profiles. This is a theatrical collage that wants to draw out the attitudes that allowed a small group of corporate sharks to wipe out a vast pool of 401K savings.
Ultimately, the piece’s strength lies not in its storytelling but in its twisted pageantry. Skilling isn’t intimately known by the end of the play, but his tunnel-vision mentality and moral blind spots have been thrown into high relief.
If this were merely a case study of a single group of MBA crooks, it probably wouldn’t have much resonance. But this tale, which spans two presidents and the trauma of 9/11, is a harbinger of the economic crisis that we’re still digging ourselves out of. Prebble's language fails her when she tries to sum up the wreckage through her characters, but the scale of the moral debacle has been brilliantly surveyed.
It’s ironic that this incisive carnival was originally made in England. But rather than be thin-skinned about the foreign critique, let’s be grateful that a show as improbable as “Enron” is getting a chance at a U.S. hearing.
The "Enron" that opened on Broadway last night isn't a lecture or a documentary. It's a show.
After snoozing through many well-meaning tracts about Iraq, the prospect of a play about a financial meltdown wasn't appealing. But "Enron" is a whip-smart, edge-of-your-seat ride that'd rival anything at Six Flags -- there are even raptor-headed businessmen prancing around.
To recount the rise and fall of the Houston company and its scheming CEO, Jeffrey Skilling, the British team of playwright Lucy Prebble and director Rupert Goold (Patrick Stewart's "Macbeth") had to tackle such arid topics as commodity trading and mark-to-market accounting. But they make the financial sleights of hand and power struggles both easy to follow and unabashedly flashy. And so we get whiz-bang projections, Kenneth Lay (Gregory Itzin, from "24") leading a board of literal blind mice, and traders whipping themselves into a frenzy to blaring techno music.
Skilling drives the play as he drove Enron. In a tour-de-performance by Norbert Leo Butz ("Dirty Rotten Scoundrels"), he's a business-school visionary who drinks his own Kool-Aid and loses touch with reality -- along with any kind of moral compass.
Skilling and math-geek CFO Andy Fastow (Stephen Kunken) devise the shadow companies that will artificially inflate Enron's stock. Even with 20/20 hindsight, it's hard not to get caught up in the suspense, especially as we track the ups and downs of ENE, Enron's NYSE symbol, on a ticker tape. Anthony Ward's set, all stainless steel, glass and neon, suggests the oppressive opacity of a corporate building.
Skilling's main rival is the head of one of the company's units, Claudia Roe (Marin Mazzie), inspired by Enron's Rebecca Mark. Roe wants to build actual power plants, and she plays the game as hard as the men around her. They shun her because they see her priorities as antiquated, not because she lacks the necessary cojones.
Indeed, Roe is at ease with the testosterone-fueled one-upmanship that drives Enron's infectious, anything-is-possible intensity. It all looks like great fun, which Prebble and Goold never shy from showing.
The playwright makes risk management as entertaining as pulp fiction, and the director isn't above visual puns. Enron created "joint energy development investments" (JEDI) in California, so he stages that state's blackouts as a lightsaber battle.
Eventually, facts caught up with the games. The shell companies weren't real, unlike the employees who lost their jobs and life savings. There was outrage, trials, Senate hearings.
A few years after Enron's collapse, the country blindly embraced subprime mortgages. With a bit of luck, we'll get a good song-and-dance out of it.
In Lucy Prebble’s “Enron,” the flashy but labored economics lesson that opened on Tuesday night at the Broadhurst Theater, money doesn’t just talk. It sings. It dances. It puts on funny animal costumes. And of course it blows bubbles.
Working overtime to make an entertaining spectacle out of the Texas energy company’s world-rattling implosion in the early 21st century, “Enron” digs deep into the vaudevillian’s trunk. Ms. Prebble and the director Rupert Goold, a showman to the marrow, have come up with an assortment of annotative visual images, designed to explain both the byzantine, corrupt accounting practices that did Enron in and the moral bankruptcy of the men who ran it.
Yet even with a well-drilled cast that includes bright Broadway headliners like Norbert Leo Butz and Marin Mazzie, the realization sets in early that this British-born exploration of smoke-and-mirror financial practices isn’t much more than smoke and mirrors itself. “Enron” is fast-paced, flamboyant and, despite the head-clogging intricacy of its business mathematics, lucid to the point of simple-mindedness. But as was true of the company of this play’s title, the energy generated here often feels factitious, all show (or show and tell) and little substance.
The collapse of Enron was one of the great riches-to-rage business stories in American history, even if the public memory of it grows fainter with each succeeding accusation of large-scale financial misconduct. (Goldman Sachs, anyone?) Since the company filed for bankruptcy in 2001, ruining many of its share-holding employees, various how-did-it-happen books have been published. There has been a full-length documentary (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”) and a made-for-television movie (“The Crooked E: The Unshredded Truth About Enron”).
But the story of Enron had not, to my knowledge, been given the full-scale theatrical treatment. You have to admire the chutzpah of Ms. Prebble, the creator of the television series “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” for daring to bring to the stage a tale of such tangled finances that it has defied the analytical powers of many a business journalist and academic.
So far, Ms. Prebble’s gamble has paid off. First produced at the Chichester Festival Theater in England, “Enron” transferred almost immediately to the Royal Court Theater in London and subsequently settled into what looks to be a long and comfortable run in the West End, where I first saw it. British reviewers have piled on the superlatives, admiring the show’s thematic audacity, moral severity and all-out razzmatazz.
Of course, British and American tastes don’t always coincide in such matters, especially when the subject is American. It will be interesting to see if the Broadway “Enron” becomes as hot a ticket as the one in the West End, where during that show’s intermission I heard youngish men and women discussing the characters’ business strategies with the ardor of teenagers debating the plot twists of the “Twilight” movies.
Still, to this American — admittedly not a biz whiz — it seems as if “Enron” made the same points so arduously and repeatedly that there isn’t much room left for discussion. And in making those points, the show uses more signpost symbols than the collected works of John Milton.
Ms. Prebble and Mr. Goold are a bit more literal-minded than Milton was. The play begins with three blind mice, in business suits, tapping their canes across the stage.
Before the show is over you will have seen lawyers with kerchiefs over their eyes; accountants with ventriloquist’s dummies; and a little girl, the daughter of the Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling (Mr. Butz), surrounded by floating bubbles as Daddy frets over stock prices. When, toward the end, a character steps to the edge of the stage to announce that she has “the best metaphor” for “the values that define price,” your instinct is to cry out, “Please, not another metaphor!”
The show does have proper characters, based on real people. At the center is Skilling, who metamorphoses from a nerdy, socially challenged man with a plan into an oil-slick master of the universe. The show traces his rise and fall via his relationships with his boss, Kenneth Lay (Gregory Itzin); his rival and occasional sex partner, Claudia Roe (Ms. Mazzie); and, most important, his protégé, Andy Fastow (Stephen Kunken, excellent), the guy who pioneered the “virtual reality” accounting that transformed Enron into both a star of financial innovation and an empty shell.
The dialogue among these folks tends toward the macho posturing and dirty language of locker rooms, with all of them, even Roe, being measured by the size of their testicles. But unless it is used to develop, rather than merely define, character, such language doesn’t take you far. The only intriguing relationship is the one between Skilling and Fastow, which feels fraught with awkward homoerotic (and possibly homicidal) impulses.
The design team — which includes Anthony Ward (set and costumes), Mark Henderson (lighting), Adam Cork (sound) and Jon Driscoll (video and projection) — keeps the stage pulsing with flashing colors, televised images of public figures like George W. Bush and Alan Greenspan, rainstorms of sparks (and, later, ashes) and the inevitable LED crawl of changing stock prices. Scott Ambler has choreographed several trader ballets, including a number with luminous “Star Wars”-style sabers, to illustrate the devastating impact of the deregulation of electricity on California.
Within the heat of the son-et-lumière extravaganza, the performers keep their cool, though few engage your imagination. Mr. Butz, who can usually be relied on to perk up any show, loses a distinctive hold on Skilling once the character sheds his initial awkwardness. Ms. Mazzie doesn’t have much to do except talk tough and wear tight clothes. Mr. Itzin lends a tasty, ambiguously sinister edge to Lay’s paternalism.
As the ever more obsessive Fastow, who becomes Enron’s chief financial officer, Mr. Kunken charts a slide into near dementia with wit and clarity. Granted, he has the great advantage of appearing with the show’s most inspired visual gimmick: a set of red-eyed, dinosaur-headed creatures called Raptors, the embodiment of Fastow’s debt-consuming substructures in a phantom company.
Come to think of it, it’s Fastow’s relationship with the Raptors, not Skilling, that is the show’s most fascinating. The vision of Fastow — a necktie wrapped around his head — and his raptors in his inner sanctum, just before Enron goes boom, brings to mind a war-warped, jungle-fevered character out of “Apocalypse Now” or “The Deer Hunter.” It’s a hilarious, scary image and one of the few in “Enron” that suggests the real heart of darkness meant to be beating at its center.