Broadway Reviews

Enron

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 27, 2010

Enron by Lucy Prebble. Directed by Rupert Goold. Set and costume design by Anthony Ward. Lighting design by Mark Henderson. Composition and sound design by Adam Cork. Video and projection design by Jon Driscoll. Choreography by Scott Ambler. Cast: Norbert Leo Butz, Gregory Itzin, Marin Mazzie, Stephen Kunken, Jordan Ballard, Brandon J. Dirden, Rightor Doyle, Anthony Holds, Ty Jones, Ian Kahn, January LaVoy, Tom Nelis, Madisyn Shipman, Jeff Skowron, Lusia Strus, Mary Stewart Sullivan, Noah Weisberg.
Theatre: Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Audience: May be inappropriate for 12 and under. (Parental discretion is advised. There is some profanity and a brief simulated, but fully clothed sexual act on stage.) Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Schedule: Tuesday at 7 pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 pm, Sunday at 3 pm.
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes, with one intermission
Ticket prices: $66.50 - $251.50
Tickets: Telecharge

Enron
Norbert Leo Butz
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Which is the greater achievement of Enron: that someone wrought an energetic theatre experience out of one of the biggest financial collapses in American history, or that you don’t need an advanced degree in finance to understand it? Lucy Prebble’s play, which just opened at the Broadhurst, may not cover a lot of new ground, and may ignore some byways it would be better off exploring, but what it does take on it does so with such clarity and originality that it never comes across as the two-and-a-half-hour scold it technically is.

This is, after all, a play and production (which transferred from London’s Royal Court Theatre) in which an omnipresent stock ticker is essentially a major character, the rises and falls of the market are charted in song and dance, and tiny companies that consume larger entities’ debt are depicted as literal predatory dinosaurs (velociraptors, in this case). For every metaphor, symbol, and even that Prebble has devised, director Rupert Goold, set and costume designer Anthony Ward, and lighting designer Mark Henderson have found a physical or aural representation that could not be improved upon.

The stage is a futuristic boxing ring, ornamented by a dozen poles that can drop in from the flies and light up any of a number of different colors. It’s crowned by that ticker, an LED marvel on the upstage wall, that ominously charts various securities’ progress. And a projection screen, usually bearing the company’s logo but sometimes also showing video footage or other crucial designs (they’re the work of Jon Driscoll), keeps the atmosphere continuously percolating. Throw in those musical numbers — the opening anthem is “The Star-Spangled Banner” — and you have an airtight interplay of visuals, sound, and action strongly reminiscent of Coram Boy, which was seen on Broadway three years ago.

Enron
Norbert Leo Butz with Stephen Kunken.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Unlike that melodrama retread, Enron always feels up-to-the-moment, its theatrical language more closely resembling modern slang rather than antiquated vernacular. In a way, this is as it has to be. Only contemporary stage know-how could make proper sense of a story constructed on that most today of ideas: You don’t need to spend money to make money, you merely need invent money to make money.

The dueling Edisons here are Jeffrey Skilling (Norbert Leo Butz), who was hired as president of Enron in 1997 based on his platform of selling the movement of energy rather than the creation of it; and the financial guru Andy Fastow (Stephen Kunken), who posits — and then executes — a cunning plan that uses a shadow business to hide the fact that Enron isn’t stockpiling the countless billions it claims to be. The skyrocketing future of both men and the company is assured, as long as the stock price never dips.

Even if you didn’t know how things unfolded in the real world through 2001, you’d be able to predict the outcome just based on the impossibility of the premise (the key clue that everything here more or less actually happened). But Skilling and Fastow’s plotting and eventual pummeling neither presuppose nor require any knowledge beyond what Prebble lays out: For example, a scene in which Fastow articulates his scheme of using Enron stock to secretly prop up Enron stock is cunningly illustrated with a filing cabinet; this, along with other similar explanations, drives home how simple even the most complex thefts are.

What Prebble does not do, unfortunately, is bestow on the emotional side of the equation the same loving detail. Claudia Roe, Skilling’s chief foil within the company because of her insistence on managing and taking risks on tangible products, is set up as both a potential romantic interest and the play’s moral center, but is too coldly scripted and performed (by Marin Mazzie) to succeed as either. Skilling’s young daughter (Madisyn Shipman and Mary Stewart Sullivan share the role) is presented briefly as an avatar of innocence, but is so tangential that she feels more like a ham-handed device than a person. And not everyone may agree that Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay (a well-cast, charismatic Gregory Itzin) was quite as much of a victim as Prebble paints him.

Enron
Norbert Leo Butz
Photo by Joan Marcus.

But Butz and Kunken are legitimately impressive in their roles, evoking the deadly ambition that drove Skilling and Fastow to the depths of greatness. Butz has by far the largest role, and is a perfect fit for it, his coolly likeable manner and charming enthusiasm adroitly reflecting every aspect of the beguiling Skilling. If he’s not able to put the character over into complete tragic figure, it’s only the writing that prevents him from doing it — Butz’s rollicking roller coaster of his anger, confusion, desperation, and eventual acceptance allow the actor no missteps. Fastow is even more of a cipher, but Kunken finds in him a dynamic balance between the family man wanting to make good and the criminal who’s positive that he’s smart enough to get away with financial murder.

Neither, however, is well served by the shaky second act. Except for a brief scene in which California’s power crisis is depicted as an epic lightsaber battle (seriously), Enron’s implosion is nowhere near as harrowing or as satisfying as its build-up. This is also when Prebble and Goold’s devices start to get a bit tiring. If less time were expended on how the feeding, controlling, of killing raptors and more on the aftermath that shredded tens of thousands of working people’s futures when solid-gold stock options became worthless paper, we might get a better sense of the true scope of this most expansive of crimes.

Still, there’s so much creativity on display here that you’ll feel like an expert in just about every other aspect of this story by the time the play has run its course. Such education is the best way to ensure that the likes of Skilling and Fastow will never get away with this kind of thing again. And the imaginative fun in which that lesson is wrapped helps the difficult medicine go down, even if a stronger infusion of humanity would do even more for its flavor.


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