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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
So bravo indeed to Lucy Prebble who at the ripe old age of twenty-eight tackled the challenge of making people not only understand a Texas conglomerate's built-on-air financial accounting scheme but to create an original entertainment. With director Rupert Goold to add his flair for razzle-dazzle staging to support and collaboratie on her story, Enron became big enough hit to make a major splash, moving from Chichester to London (where it's still playing), and now to Broadway.
If you think Enron's particularly spectacular rise and fall has become something of a blip in the history of financial scandals, think again. With the Goldman-Sachs executives defending their questionable dealings with credit default swaps before the Senate on the very day that Enron had its official Broadway opening, makes the play more timely than ever, and insures that the term "Enronesque" will be part of our lexicon to define the ethics-be-dammned way of doing business that continues to darken the financial horizon.
Anyone unfamiliar with the the world of high finance, will probably gain a better understanding of Enron's complicated accounting maneuvers from watching the documentary based on Bethany McLean and Peter Elikid's The Smartest Guys in the Room (also aired on TV on the same date as Enron's opening). But then Prebble was never out to do a straightforward docu-drama. As her author's note in the published edition of the play explains this is an "author's fiction" and she therefore refers readers looking for more straightforward accounts such as McLean and Peter Elkind's or Lauren Fox's Enron: The Rise and Fall, Kurt Eichenwald's Conspiracy of Fools, as well as John Kenneth Galbraith's account of the 1929 Crash.
With Wall Street bigwigs continuing to line their pockets with multi-million dollar bonuses and by selling their stocks short at the expense of others, Enron is a modern tragedy with a main character as flawed and doomed as some of Shakespeare's villains. But as this is a documentary only in the sense that it's based on a true case history, neither is it a conventional tragedy but a superbly staged absurdist saitre about power and greed gone mad.
Seeing the play almost a week after the first round of critics had their say, it was impossible not to be aware that opinions were quite divided, with the naysayers including the man from the New York Times. As for me, after two and a half hour of being riveted by the play, the staging and its American tragic anti-hero, I'm solidly with the minority applauders.
Prebble's faction is staged with the same flair Rupert Goold brought to Macbeth. The result is a crazy quilt that's part business thriller shades of the movie Wall Street and a Brechtian vaudeville that takes full advantage of modern stage technology. All the eye-popping flashy elements described in Lizzie Loveridge's review below have crossed the pond to the Broadhurst stage: The opening parade of three blind mice, the Arthur Andersen accountants as a ventriloquist and his dummy, the shell companies represented by red-eyed raptors, the Lehman brothers as Siamese twins, the ticking prices projected on the upstage wall, along with images that include the George W. Bush campaign, Bill Clinton. Don't ask.
As for the American cast, hurrah, hurrah! Norbert Leo Butz one of two delightful scoundrels in the 2006 musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (review) has this corporate scoundrel down pat. He doesn't look anything like the maniacally ambitious Skilling, as the British actor portraying him did, but who cares. Remember, this is fiction which happens to use characters based on real people. Butz dominates the play as Skilling did Enron and It's not an overstatement to call his a tour-de-force performance.
Stephen Kunken is also terrific as Skilling's colleague, the geeky, sycophantic Andy Fastow who dreams up the system of inflating the company's stock with shadow companies. What a pair! They're so deluded that you almost feel sorry for them. Well, not really, since neither one of them shows any sign of remorse.
While I would have liked to see Tim Pigott-Smith who was Ken Lay in the London production it's not because I don't think Gregory Itzin is convincing as the laid-back enabler of the two scoundrels. It's because Pigott-Smith etched himself indelibly in my memory as Ronald Merrick in The Jewel and the Crown, the TV adaptation of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet that I would have liked an opportunity to see him off screen. Itzin's Lay is a hail-fellow Texan who, though the real Lay had a PhD, doesn't seem all that smart — which may be a ruse for blinding himself to the reality of what Skilling and Fastow were doing. A scene in which he asks Skilling to join him in prayer evokes memories of the well-known story of Nixon asking Kissinger to join him in prayer when his Presidency collapsed as a result of the Watergate scandal.
Unlike most New York theater goers who know Marin Mazzie only as a musical theater star, I saw her do a formidable Blanche DuBois at Barrington Stage in the Berkshires; therefore her casting as Claudia Roe came as no surprise to me. She brings sexual and overall cool to the part as Skilling's bedmate (actually sex is a quickly snatched affair on top of a desk —, no time wasted taking off clothes. For this couple, sex never quite obliterates thoughts of stocks.
The more than a dozen ensemble members handle the intricate comic developments as well as some small character parts with aplomb. Luisa Strus and Brandon J. Dirden make particularly strong impressions as impoverished former employees. Their confronting Skilling at Lay's funeral captures the devastating emotional pain that makes this a genuine tragedy.
The work of the designers who helped Mr. Goold realize his vision is stunning. Choreographer Scott Ambler, at one point uses Mark Henderson's dazzling neon tubes for an eye-popping dance number. Add Adam Cork's ditty for the Analysts ("If your company bank accounts need filling/ He's available, and willing/ To see to it that you make a killing!/ Skilling, Skilling, Skilling, Skilling, Skilling, Be boo doo wop wop ba doo!") and you can see why this play often feel like the genre Butz and Mazzie are best known for.
Enron is loaded with metaphors. My own metaphoric take overall is that this is a variation of the Icarus myth, with Skilling and Fastow are twin Icaruses bent on escaping the constraints of honest business practices in order to soar to the sky on wings fashioned from air and greed, but flying too close to the sun to stay aloft.
All the fun stuff doesn't completely avoid the strain of Prebble's attempt to include the factual information needed to clarify the convoluted stock manipulation without boring the audience. Her best efforts and extensive research notwithstanding, it's unlikely that you'll lap up some of the information dished up as dialogue. If you entered the theater not knowing how shadow companies, selling short or mark-to-market works, you'll not leave all that much wiser. But the devil is not in the details but in the imagination that's on display in th is smartly conceived and staged play.
Hopefully the continued malfeasance in financial circles on this side of the pond won't make it too painful for audiences to want to see this play and laugh at the absurdity of it all. Enron the company deserved to go bankrupt, but if I were to compare Enron, the play to a stock, I'd call it a BUY for anyone who appreciates innovative theater.
Lucy Prebble has made theatre wait a long time for her second play since the success of The Sugar Syndrome at the Royal Court in 2003 (review) but I would gladly wait another six years for a play only half as good as her latest. Of course with Rupert Goold at the director's helm, we knew Enron would be very exciting theatre, but even my high expectations were exceeded by this dazzlingly intelligent and physical production.
Enron is about the creative accounting adopted by the Texan energy giant to disguise their losses and debts that gives creativity a bad name . The bubble burst and down tumbled two giants, Enron and accountants Arthur Andersen, as well as many Enron employees who lost not only their jobs but all their capital after using it to purchase the company's shares.
So how do we turn the tedium of financial balance sheets and stock market registers into living theatre? With innovative skill, that's how!
Three companies have collaborated on Enron, Headlong which is Rupert Goold's production and touring company, the Royal Court and the Festival Theatre Chichester where Enron opened in the summer in the Minerva Theatre. The anticipation has been increased by all 21,800 tickets selling out for the six week run at the Royal Court on the strength of the reviews from Chichester. But the excitement is there from the beginning in Mark Henderson's vertical blue tube neon lighting, knee high columns of light which change colour, are raised or manipulated to form frames of light.
The play opens with a parade of the three blind mice and a Texan voice drawls an introduction to the company and tells us that this is only one version of the truth. Suited company men and women wheel on designer office chairs singing "The Star Spangled Banner". This is Houston Texas where it is said the women wear their diamonds in the middle of the day. We meet Kenneth Lay (Tim Pigott-Smith) and Claudia Roe (Amanda Drew): she is fictitious, and comes to represent the opposition to new recruit, overweight, geeky, Harvard MBA, Jeffrey Skilling (Sam West) who wants to introduce to Enron the concept of "mark to market", the opportunity to trade virtually in future profits generated by an idea.
It is the images which are so unforgettable. Anthony Ward designs the cityscape. The skyscraper tower backdrop of red moving stock market price projections with the price of Enron shares highlighted in yellow. The choreography of the market traders in their red and black trading jackets, either in exhilaration or meltdown. The three blind mice seem to be on the board of directors. A slimmed down Skilling's interview of Andy Fastow taking place in the gym on treadmills, which Skilling increases the speed is a reference to the pressure on his employee. The paper and ash fallout from 9/11 as Ken Lay talks through the cloud of the explosion projected on to the top of tower. The velociraptors with their red lit eyes, the phoney string of Raptor companies which company accountant Andy Falstow (Tom Goodman-Hill) uses to generate funds for the company whilst at the same time hiding Enron's debts, but which turn into an episode of When Pets Go Bad. Video clips remind us of the era, including President Clinton's spin on Lewinsky.
When Lucy Prebble had originally approached Rupert Goold some years back, we are told by Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times that it was a musical she had in mind. Although Enron is now a play with music, Scott Ambler's choreography energises the market places, often to wild techno music, the traders hold capitalism's hero Jeff Skilling aloft as we lead up to the raucous party for the Year 2000. There are ho downs and parties galore and lots of glorious staging to enjoy.
The Lehman brothers are a comic pair of Siamese twins wearing the same giant suit for some horse trading to inflate the price of Enron's shares by selecting it as a smart buy and so generating the reward in return of business for their own bank. The election brings George W's win backed by Ken Lay and Enron's celebrating the deregulation of electricity staged as an army with light sabres in California, where blackouts dominate the news. We are told that Enron has called their strategy in California, Death Star.
Sam West with his hair straightened bears more than a little resemblance to Skilling. His portrait is not all ambition but we feel this is a businessman doing what business intends him to do. As he says, if it hadn't been for 9/11 he might have got away with it. Remember, Skilling was also the one promoting wind farms and alternative energy. I think West's performance is remarkable in its complexity and I hope he will go to Broadway. We see him near the end having a nervous breakdown on the streets of New York.
Amanda Drew as Claudia Roe, the power dressed, ballsy woman with the big hair, is well cast. There is no vulnerability in her performance even when she loses out as Chief Executive to Skilling and longer term she is a winner as she sells her Enron shares early. Tim Pigott-Smith is too tall and has too much hair to look anything like Ken Lay but his likable performance has a Texan bonhomie laced with plenty of self belief and arrogance. The ensemble cast do a brilliant job with the bit parts. I loved the direction of the news anchorwomen as they pivot for the television camera.
Enron is booked into a four month run at the Noêl Coward Theatre in London's West End and thence to Broadway. Columbia Pictures have acquired the rights to film it with Lucy Prebble writing the script. Enron is at turns jokey and serious, it makes you laugh but it also makes you think, it is exciting theatre, with a great script and fine movement, as near perfect as I've seen and I fully expect it to scoop the theatre awards for 2009, Best New Play, Best Director, Best Lighting, Best Performance.
If you want to know the outcome read on, if not don't. . .
9/11 brings the crash and the Senate Committee and trials. Lay, Skilling and Fastow all plead the Fifth and Lay's death from a heart attack prevents his conviction. Fastow plea bargains and gets six years. Skilling, who sold his shares after he has left Enron but knew that bankruptcy was imminent, is accused of fraud, conspiracy and insider dealing and is sent to prison for 24 years and four months. As a postscript to the play, Skilling is l appealing his sentence.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge January 26, 2010 at the Noel coward Theater with Samuel West as Jeffrey Skilling, Tim Pigott-Smith as Ken Lay, Tom Goodman-Hill as Andy Fastow and Amanda Drew as Claudia Roe.