Theater review: ‘Enron’ at the Broadhurst Theatre
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NEW YORK—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.
-- Charles McNulty
follow him on Twitter @ charlesmcnulty