Jordan Ballard, Norbert Leo Butz, Brandon J. Dirden, Rightor Doyle, Ben Hartley, Anthony Holds, Gregory Itzen, Ty Jones, Ian Kahn, Stephen Kunken, January LaVoy, Ellyn Marie Marsh, Marin Mazzie, Tom Nelis, Madisyn Shipman, Jeff Skowron, Lusia Strus, Mary Stewart Sullivan, Noah Weisberg
Flights of theatrical fancy collide with economic truth-telling in 29-year-old Lucy Prebble’s thrilling play Enron, opening last week (and closing this week) on Broadway. A sensation in the U.K., premiering at the Chichester Festival and subsequently transferring to the Royal Court and the West End, Enron shows that modern political plays can be both thrilling and informative, expressionistic and true-to-life, all while serving up a healthy dose of entertainment value.
Though Prebble doesn’t claim that her play is complete fact, she does purport to show us what the rise and fall of this massive corporation was like and to demonstrate the breadth of its impact on our time. “We’re going to put it together and sell it to you as the truth,” a lawyer tells us as a brief introduction, and this may as well be the motto of the play, which is, in essence, an illustration of how individuals’ greed (and fear) can induce, on a superhuman scale, the mangling of an economic system.
Before long we’re introduced to the situation at hand. It’s the 1990s, a time of prosperity in the U.S., where irresponsibly acquired blowjobs are – to most casual observers – the most egregious offense in the White House for the time being. Economic expansion seems endless, and the energy company Enron begins its ascent by announcing the adoption of a new mark-to-market approach.
Without getting too technical, this new system, devised by Enron employee Jeffrey Skilling, claims future profits promised by new deals and partnerships as instant earnings, skipping ahead past the actual achievement of progress and allowing companies (and their stock values) to reap the benefits of deals moment-by-moment rather than actually having to fulfill their promises.
Thus begins the rapid ascent of the Enron Corporation. CEO Ken Lay appoints Jeffrey Skilling the president of the company, and Skilling, alongside his sidekick and eventual CFO Andy Fastow, devises a scheme wherein the company’s mounting debts are metaphorically eaten by a series of puppet companies (here called – and portrayed as – raptors), allowing the company’s stocks to continue rising while not much of any merit is actually happening at Enron.
This all may seem a bit weighty – like one of those history lectures all of us have no doubt snoozed through in our college years – but Prebble’s smart, thrifty writing, which utilizes a number of handy-dandy metaphors and fast-paced, well-structured scenes, gives us the scoop on Enron with relative ease. I went into the play with little-to-no knowledge of Enron’s story and left without feeling I’d missed anything in the least.
Prebble has a way of devising scenes so that real-life events are portrayed with a degree of accuracy without demonstrating a slavish adherence to her sources. Three blind mice usher in the events to come, echoing one of Enron’s last TV commercials before its demise, and a lightsaber battle brings immediacy to the fast-paced energy trading that led to blackouts in California in the early 2000s. More naturalistically, Skilling’s rapid rise to power finds him running a mile a minute on a treadmill, protege Andy Fastow huffing and puffing to keep up during a workout date-cum-business meeting.
Rupert Goold’s flashy, over-the-top direction suits the material perfectly. Goold has been appreciated in England for bold approaches to new and classic plays (including the Macbeth starring Patrick Stewart that transfered to New York a few seasons back), and his work here is among his best. Interpreting Prebble’s text to maximum effect, the theatrically challenges Prebble has devised for the band of actors tackling her play become, in Goold’s hands, thrilling achievements rather than insurmountable obstacles.
The play’s cast, led by Norbert Leo Butz as Jeffrey Skilling, work cohesively as a unit. Butz, typically a chuckle-inducing musical theatre performer, continues his recent dramatic successes (his work in last season’s Fifty Words impressed), making Skilling a tragic hero the likes of the Greeks, subject to his own human inadequacies. Gregory Itzen cuts a slimy figure as CEO Ken Lay, and Stephen Kunken portrays Andy Fastow as an aspirant ladder-climbing accomplice, sucked in by the rapid ascent assured him just so long as he maintains the company’s duplicitous facade.
The men of the cast come up against Marin Mazzie as Claudia Roe, a composite character comprised of a number of female figures at Enron. Like the play, she’s been cleverly devised as a way of showing us what our tragic hero-villains’ struggles were like without adhering exactly to the truth. Preferring the tangible over the fantastic (“There is a dignity to holding something,” as Skilling phrases it), Roe, Lay’s favorite, loses out on the president job at Enron because she’s unable to acknowledge that Skilling’s theories for profit-wrangling are as promising and groundbreaking as they seem at the time.
Perhaps Claudia’s fate foreshadows, in some ways, the fate of the show in which she’s contained. While the fantastical spectacle that is Enron (like Enron the company) rises to the heights of drama and finds itself served with a closing notice, Broadway theatergoers preferring naturalistic plays continue, unblemished, in their adoration of paint-by-numbers domestic dramas. It’s a safe way to proceed, as Claudia would attest, and one that occasionally offers its rewards, but one has to exclaim, looking back at those glorious financial failures, “It sure was a thrill while it lasted!”