nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 4, 2010
Enron, once the hotly anticipated presumptive dramatic hit of the season, will close this Sunday after a run of less than two weeks on Broadway. This is not nearly as large a crime as the one the play examines, but it is going to deprive theatre-goers of the chance to see a work that is original, audacious, and thrillingly relevant: Lucy Prebble's unconventional docudrama forces audiences to confront uncomfortable truths about a world and a financial system gone disastrously awry. Enron's raw and jolting honesty is difficult to sit through, because just about everybody who was an adult during the past decade is at least somewhat accountable for enabling the climate of greed and entitlement that allowed this story to happen as it did.
Enron begins in Houston in 1992, with the ascendance of Jeffrey Skilling at the oil and gas company founded by Kenneth Lay. Skilling is pushing a new accounting practice in the company, one that enables the company to recognize profits before they are realized or even known with any degree of certainty. This turns out to be the just the tip of Skilling's postmodern entrepreneurial iceberg: he wants to transform Enron into a distillery of innovation, earning rewards (in the form of an ever-increasing stock price) for developing increasingly complex and abstract business models and instruments rather than for actually producing or selling things people want or need. When he finds a kindred spirit in genius accountant Andy Fastow, a collaboration ensues that makes Enron the most venerated American corporation of its time, Skilling a business superstar, and both men (now CEO and CFO of Enron) very wealthy.
And then the bubble bursts, as bubbles always do. The play ends with the trials of Lay, Skilling, and Fastow. At the end, Skilling is unrepentant, and the last thing he says to us is that the most important thing to humankind is money.
I don't know how accurate the specifics of Prebble's play are—one pivotal character, Claudia Roe, who is Skilling's nemesis at Enron, appears to be at least in part an invention of playwright. But the big ideas of Enron are entirely on target. There are marvelously lucid speeches that illuminate the treacherous ideas Skilling and Fastow promoted: Claudia explains that the company's fortunes are tied into perceptions of perceptions of perceptions of value, a spiral of meta-ness that has no underlying meaning or innate worth. And Fastow has a terrific scene with Skilling in which he unfurls a funding scheme that conjures wealth from thin air while wrapped tightly within layers of corporate fictions that are nested inside one another like a set of Russian matryoshka dolls.
Another key moment in the play has Skilling barking orders at a security guard (he wants him to search his office for bugs). Skilling waylays the man to explain what a hedge fund is, but the worker tells him with breathtaking simplicity that all of the employees at Enron trust him to run the company wisely. (Skilling of course advised employees to invest their money heavily in Enron stock, leaving many of them high and dry while he and other bigwigs sold their shares before they crashed.)
Apart from its shattering pertinence, Enron is the most ambitiously imaginative drama to arrive on Broadway in a long time. Some of the devices that Prebble and director Rupert Goold use are brilliant, such as the metamorphosis of Fastow's "raptor accounts" into live dinosaurs a la Jurassic Park, or Jon Driscoll's high-tech projections that work in tandem with Anthony Ward's spare, sleek set to create the numbers- and adrenalin-driven world of the play. Others, including various musically scored and choreographed transitions involving Enron power traders and a long ninja sequence depicting the California energy crisis of the early 2000s, fail—but they are admirable for their energy and originality, for their willingness to shake up the status quo of how a serious play is supposed to look and feel. Norbert Leo Butz gives a tour de force performance without compromise as Skilling, with other standouts in the company including Marin Mazzie as voice-of-reason Claudia Roe and Gregory Itzin as a godlike (in a bad way) Kenneth Lay.
Skilling announces at the beginning of Enron that he wants to change the way the world does business. By the end of the play, it is horrifyingly clear that he has. The lessons of the presto-chango magic of Enron's rise don't seem to have been much learned or digested by corporate America (or corporate Europe, etc.). The mirror Prebble makes her audience look into in this play reflects too clearly back at us. And so the show will close after two weeks on Broadway.