Houston Has a Problem in "Enron"

EnronNorbert Leo Butz in Enron [pic: Joan Marcus]
Written by Lucy Prebble
Directed by Rupert Goold
Starring Norbert Leo Butz, Gregory Itzin, Marin Mazzie, Stephen Kunken

Morality play, cautionary tale, acidic satire: Enron is all of these and more. Lucy Prebble’s audacious play attempts to encompass the whole story of the energy giant's precipitous fall to earth with a thud.

Taking on the Bush years' first big bankruptcy disaster, Enron shows how it came about: from a combination of hubris, naiveté, arrogance and a uniquely American optimism, a belief that nothing bad can happen long as one doesn’t think it will. That’s essentially how Prebble paints Enron CEO Jeff Skilling, a Machiavellian character who truly believed (or pretended to) that what occurred under his watch—essentially a financial house of cards that Wall Street loved until its eventual collapse, making the stock worthless and ending the company’s improbable run as “the most innovative company in America”—was legal, ethical and good for shareholders, employees, and himself.

Prebble also shows Skilling at home with his young daughter, and we see that even family members are treated like employees and fellow executives: as props to prop himself up as their savior. Norbert Leo Butz shrewdly plays Skilling as a skillful juggler, parts innocence and nastiness, with a fervor underlying it all that makes us think—if only momentarily—that he wasn’t disingenuous about what he did, even when dressed in prison oranges to deliver the play’s final words about America’s love affair with money.

Alongside Butz, Gregory Itzin makes chairman Ken Lay a believably (and notoriously) devil-may-care figurehead, while Marin Mazzie (who looks dazzling in a succession of form-fitting dresses) registers strongly as Claudia, a composite of several Enron female execs.

Enron, the play, failed on Broadway even faster than the original corporation went under: it closes just over a week after opening, a huge flop by any standard. But there are mitigating circumstances. First, the play's title should have been anything but Enron, a buzzword that conjures up another era and dates it immediately, with most people—wrongly, of course—assuming that it concerns long-forgotten events. The current volatile stock market puts the lie to the “lack of relevance” claim, and what happens onstage is still being played out in company board rooms.

Too bad for those who stayed away: those who came saw a spectacularly entertaining piece of theater, staged with rip-snorting cleverness by Rupert Goold, furthering the Brechtian distancing devices already in Prebble's script, and introducing forceful, deliriously theatrical imagery to provokes visceral reactions in its audience.

The play's first image, three life-size blind mice standing in for Enron’s board members, return later. When Enron’s financial whiz, Andy Fastow (played by a brilliantly crazed Stephen Kunken), creates a scheme that he calls “raptors” to hide the company’s enormous losses from Wall Street, men wearing dinosaur heads similar to flesh-eating monsters of Jurassic Park slither around the stage, gobbling all the debt-laden cash Enron's drowning in. Sure, it’s an obvious metaphor, but it comes to humorously absurdist life onstage, perfectly capturing such tumultuous times.

Sure, Goold sometimes goes too far: a lengthy sequence about the rolling California electricity blackouts steered by Enron fills the stage with green light sabre-wielding traders, a la Star Wars, and comes off as amateur night at the cantina. Yet mainly, Goold's elaborately-done sound and light show (with several jokey musical interludes) proves that overkill is not too much when dealing with such a legendary—and still reverberating—flame-out that began this century in a dire direction that has appallingly continued.

Broadhurst Theater
235 West 44th Street
New York, NY

Closed May 9, 2010