Unsolicited Theater Review: Enron

Enron, which is packing the Royal Court Theatre nightly before it heads off to the West End at highly inflated ticket prices, is worth it. It’s a bit disenheartening that Lucy Prebble, whose second play it is, can turn out such an accomplished piece of work at such a tender age—she’s all of 28. But it’s great theatre—it covers the bases, it’s pretty funny throughout and highly funny in spots, and if it overdoes some of the symbolism at time, it captures how Enron fit into the American imagination of the time. And it moves right along, without a dead spot all evening. Prebble understands that Enron is a quintessentially American story, one of a business so intertwined with politics and funny money and that curious belief in unfettered markets that no one ever seems to learn from. That she is able to turn this story of a confused mixture of greed and ideology into a fine theatrical evening is a considerable accomplishment.

(A bit of full disclosure first—I worked at Citi for a number of years, and while I had no direct contact with the Enron people or any of the deals that Citi brought on their behalf, including the now notorious partnerships that ended up sinking the company, I knew some of the people who did. It was not Citi’s finest hour. Of course, Citi was having a lot of things go wrong around then, so it was just one of a whole raft of problems that came along that came close to sinking the bank.)

The story is fascinating enough, as anyone who has seen The Smartest Guys in the Room will know. Sleepy gas pipeline company becomes global trading megastar, or something along those lines. We don’t actually see much of that process, though—what sort of company Ken Lay had built before the arrival of Skilling. So we don’t really get a sense of how transformative Jeffrey Skilling was when he came into the company, although Prebble does try to lay this out early on. But Prebble does what appears to be a pretty good job of showing how driven Skilling was, and how it changed the company from a bunch of traders to a bunch of sharks. Sam West (son of Timothy) plays Skilling as a nerd, and he’s surrounded by several nerds as well, including the equally odious Andrew Fastow, who was to become Enron’s Chief financial Officer and was directly responsible for the fraudulent partnerships that led to Enron’s downfall. Sam West’s performance is nicely done—we pick up immediately that he’s a nerd, but he’s also a really, really smart one, and he won’t be happy until everyone realizes how smart he really is. So here are these nerdy guys growing this company into an American powerhouse, with old Texan gas guy Ken Lay—a nice turn by Tim Piggott-Smith—in the background, beaming away, playing golf with both Bushes. What could possibly go wrong?

We get to see pretty much all the relevant action, including the raping of the California ratepayer, all passed off as just business in Bush’s America. Well, it was Clinton’s America too, it has to be said. But he was sandwiched by a pair of Texas oil guys for whom there was no amount of government intervention into the energy business that could be justified. Prebble alludes to this, but British audiences often have such a weird idea of America and how it works that you never really know if the British understand how thoroughly trashed America was during this period. (Most British I know still think of the Republican Party as being more or less equivalent to the Tories, when in fact the Republicans have actually moved to another planet.) It doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the play, however, if this point isn’t brought out more—Prebble keeps things moving right along.

We know how this turns out, of course—Skilling resigns (and eventually goes to jail), Fastow turns state’s evidence to save his own skin, and Ken Lay dies at an extraordinarily convenient time for Ken Lay (although tales of sightings in South America are legion). Part of the joy of the play is how nicely Prebble strings it out for us—there’s lots that could have been included, or is only referred to in passing (that notorious plant in India, for example, is worth a play in its own right), but the play holds together pretty well on its own. Some reviewers have complained that the symbolism Prebble uses is a bit heavy—debt-eating Raptors, for example. I found them, if not cute, at least appropriate. These are people who named their deals after Star Wars characters, after all. And how else can you theatrically display a story about, at its heart, accounting fraud? This is an American story, and American stories tend to be large scale, so throwing in a bunch of obvious symbols, surrounded by the occasional song and dance routine, fits right in. It’s Texas. But more than Texas, too, as Prebble points out—a recurring theme of the play is how willing, enthusiastic even, Wall Street was in suspending its disbelief about what Enron was doing, long after it became clear that something was very wrong.

We wondered about the audience, which seemed to mostly people in their early 20s. All of this is history to them—2001 was a lively year for financial scandals, and these kids would have seen this stuff on TV—or not, which seems more likely. What 13 or 15 year-old in their right mind watches the financial news? Well, Skilling and Fastow probably did, which tells you about as much as you need to know about them. And as events of the past several years have amply demonstrated, it wasn’t just Skilling and Fastow—they just got there earlier.

4 replies »

  1. I like to imagine Ken Lay, Elvis, Michael Jackson and Hitler in some remote, S. American location practicing their boy-band routine.

    And honestly, i’m a little heartened that Brits have a view of American politics almost as skewed as the view of politics outside God’s country that Homo americanus holds.

  2. Well, I’ll be interested in seeing how it does on Broadway. Either a massive hit or a massive flop. Although I gather the movie rights have already been sold, so maybe we’ll skip Broadway entirely.

  3. Hmm, i didn’t realize that it would be coming to America. Hard to say how it will do, because if there’s one thing that Homo americanus is willfully ignorant of (more so than British or Continental politics), it would be our own sordidness. On the other hand, bankstas and their cronies are not particularly popular at the moment so who knows….

    Now to get to work on my stage adaptation of “The South American Boy Band”.

  4. Well, I don’t know for a fact that it’s going to, but hits here usually go there, Some do well, some don’t. Given the number of Wall Streeters that support Broadway, though, I imagine it will.