Enron Review: The Future of Theater?

This review was originally published on May 2, 2010
“Enron” would easily get a New York theater award if there were one for best-dressed audience. But the critical reception on Broadway of this literally spectacular play about an American financial scandal makes any other accolades iffy. This is a sharp contrast to the consistent raves and awards it received in England, where it is still running. It surprised me upon viewing this play that I seem to be siding with the well-dressed and the British. I found “Enron” more than just worth seeing; I thought I glimpsed in it the future of American theater.

Now admittedly, such a statement sounds suspect, especially since people spoke of Enron the company in just such hyperbolic terms – the future of business, “America’s Most Innovative Company” (according to Fortune Magazine six years running) – until it was exposed as an elaborate con that used financial smoke and mirrors to appear profitable when in fact it was choking on debt. Enron is a tale of false profits generated by false prophets. There are two things going for “Enron” that encourage me to overlook its flaws.
First, it is a play that attempts to explain what is happening around us, right now. Its subject is business, the kind of high-flying, high-risk and highly irresponsible business that has had such enormous consequences for this nation and this world. There is something in the news about it every day. On the very day that “Enron” opened on Broadway, the business press reported: “The law firm that won Enron investors $7.2 billion in what was one of the largest class action suits in the history of securities law filed charges against Goldman Sachs.” Is there any other Broadway show that even attempts to depict the business world?
Ok, the interior life is important; art is not the same as journalism, etc. None of these arguments justify the absence on Broadway of the sort of plays or musicals about current events that were routinely part of the mix in previous generations. Most of the current Broadway shows that one could argue offer some kind of real-world commentary – “South Pacific,” “West Side Story,” parts of “Billy Elliot,” “Fela!” “Hair” – are exercises in nostalgia, looking at issues that are current only by extrapolation and analogy.
By contrast, in “Enron,” a lawyer promises us the story of “the corporate crime that defined the end of the twentieth century and cast a shadow over this one.” We follow four central executives of the company starting from the moment that the company swerves from its concrete function as a supplier of oil and gas into a trader in increasingly abstract financial instruments. We learn with clarity the specific methods of the crime, as well as the philosophy behind it, and how the executives were aided by Wall Street banks, journalists, stock analysts, regulators. We also see how it unraveled, and some of the real-world consequences — deregulation of California’s electricity resulted in massive rolling blackouts; the collapse of Enron resulted in many of its thousands of employees losing their life savings. We are shown all this in what some have called simplistic terms, what I appreciated as simple: To help make clear the magnitude of the money involved, for example, one executive tells his daughter that if he were to count his money at a dollar a second, it would take him 11 days to get to a million dollars; to count a billion dollars that way, he tells her, it would take him 32 years.
In telling the tale, Lucy Prebble does not offer exquisitely nuanced or full-fleshed portraits of the central figures, but they do come alive, thanks in part to the performers. Norbert Leo Butz (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Wicked) plays the too-smart chief executive officer, Jeffrey Skilling, as awkward, bookish but ambitious, flowering into a power player as his imagination leads him to lose control. Gregory Itzin (best-known for his role as President Charles Logan on the TV show “24”) plays Kenneth Lay as an easygoing pal of the powerful who does not want to know what’s going on, but whose beliefs allow it to happen: “In the past, folks thought that the basic unit of society would be the state or the church or … the political party. But we now know it’s The Company.” Chief financial officer Andy Fastow is portrayed by Stephen Kunken (Proof, Frost/Nixon) as a taller and darker version of his boss, socially awkward, ambitious, and both cleverer and more amoral than Skilling. The fictitiously-named Claudia Roe (reportedly based on a real person) is played by Marin Mazzie (best-known for her roles in musicals such as Kiss Me Kate, Ragtime and Passion) as a smooth power player not above using sex to get what she wants; what she wants is to keep Enron in the tangible business of building power plants and supplying energy, although she is hardly shown as a heroine.
There is a real play here, characters, dialogue, a story; even (despite our knowledge of the outcome) some suspense. But what makes me think of “Enron” as the future of theater is director Rupert Goold’s cutting-edge stagecraft. “Enron” is the closest I have seen a stage play come to a musical. It is high-tech, multimedia performance art, with remarkable effects emanating from Anthony Ward’s set and Mark Henderson’s inventive lighting. The electronic stock price ticker is used as a design element but also to add drama. There are visual puns based on the actual record; Andy Fastow is said to have compared his financial wizardry to Raptors such as those in “Jurassic Park” eating the company’s debt, and so we are presented with four red-eyed dinosaur heads atop business-suited bodies, stashed away in Fastow’s basement, eating the cash that Fastow feeds them. We are treated to light saber battles, video projections, the manic movement of traders that approaches a kind of ballet, a constant stream of metaphors come to life. Some of this did not work for me – the Arthur Andersen accounting firm as a ventriloquist and his dummy, the Lehman Brothers as conjoined twins in a single over-large business suit, the three blind mice at the opening – and there is a whiff here and there of British tone-deafness in depicting things American. But a few over-obvious duds don’t detract from the general dazzle. In a season where some of the most spectacular – and most critically lauded – Broadway shows have virtually no book at all, or a silly excuse for one, it is an odd double-standard that would fail to acknowledge a show that if it were a show business performer would be called a triple threat. “Enron” has flash, a plot, and a point. Update May 4: Just hours after Enron was nominated for four Tony awards this morning, the producers announced that it will play its final performance this Sunday, May 9 — just 12 days after opening.
Enron by Lucy Prebble at the Broadhurst Theatre (235 W. 44th St.) Directed by Rupert Goold Choreographed by Scott Ambler, scenic and costume design by Anthony Ward, lighting design by Mark Henderson, sound design by Adam Cork, video and projection design by Jon Driscoll, music composed by Adam Cork Cast: Norbert Leo Butz (Jeffrey Skilling), Jordan Ballard (Employee, News Reporter, Analyst), Brandon Dirden (Security Guard, Trader), Rightor Doyle (Board Member, Lehman Brother, Trader, Employee), Anthony Holds (Lehman Brother Trader, Arthur Andersen , Police Officer), Gregory Itzin (Kenneth Lay), Ty Jones (Lawyer, Trader), Ian Kahn (Lawyer, Trader) , Stephen Kunken (Andy Fastow), January LaVoy (Employee, News Reporter, Prostitute, Hewitt), Marin Mazzie (Claudia Roe), Tom Nelis (Senator, Trader, Analyst, Judge) , Madisyn Shipman (Daughter, Alternate) Jeff Skowron (Court Officer, Trader, Analyst), Mary Stewart Sullivan (Daughter, Alternate), Lusia Strus (Sheryl Sloman, Congresswoman, Irene Grant), Noah Weisberg (Ramsay, Trader, Analyst) Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes including a 15-minute intermission Ticket prices: $66.50 to $121.50. Premium seats as high as $251.50. There are apparently no general rush or student rush tickets available. May be inappropriate for 12 and under.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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