Monday, April 26, 2010

Enron: What Went Wrong?

What Went Wrong? Not with the company, we know that: A couple of smartass guys thought lying and fabricating because they were ‘smarter’ than everyone else was OK, their riches their due, and consequently they totally screwed employees and shareholders numbering in the tens of thousands out of billions of dollars. Hubris abounded.

The play “Enron,” though. What went wrong with the play? I read the script before I saw the production, and though I wondered how some bits might be effectively staged, it held together for me on the page. But last night at the Broadhurst Theatre, it fell apart like Skilling and Fastow’s black box of nothing.

Some of this is probably due to razzmatazz -- initially the musical numbers were fun, then they dragged on and kept the action of the story from moving forward. Lucy Prebble’s script does dictate some physical actions to illustrate the fast-moving rise of Skilling’s Enron, but the director and choreographer seemed to be camouflaging some missing scenes.

The actors do well by the script – Norbert Leo Butz as Jeff Skilling was skeevy and pathetic, journeying from the dumpy to the buff, the resentful whiz kid to the mean victor of the spoils and the despoiler of the victims of his fraud. Terrific, funny, snappy, with a bounding energy, Butz did his damnedest to carry us along. Stephen Kunken, last seen as the Stage Manager in David Cromer’s “Our Town,”was Andy Fastow, even nerdier than Skilling, utterly inept socially, the butt of ridicule from childhood into his thirties. Finally as CFO he gets his turn, and he is crass and arrogant and mean. Lots of mean in this play – presumably Enron’s corporate culture was rude and crude. Gregory Itzin is charming, false, lazy, slimy as Ken Lay. Marin Mazzie as Claudia Roe initially struck me as a young for the role – as did Itzin for Ken Lay. Both handled the roles well, however, although Mazzie was a tad loud in the first act.

Enron” the play has an array of animals – three blind mice that look like rats, several raptors, and traders. That’s the good part. The primary characters are well done. The scenes of the excess testosterone leading to choreographed violence are terrific. Not only did the four main characters do excellent work, the entire cast did.

In general the visuals are stunning, evocative of the chaos, the stress, the glaring madness and the highs of the ‘90s, with excellent contributions by Mark Henderson (lighting), Anthony Ward (set and costume design), and Jon Driscoll (videos and projections).

But an extremely important scene regarding the Enron Traders devastating the state of California was lost. Couldn’t hear a thing -- therefore a thumbs down to sound design by Adam Cork -- because the stage was cluttered with shouting choreography and laser swords. Please. That’s another thumbs down to Scott Ambler’s choreography. Ultimately, of course, the responsibility lies with director Rupert Goold. Reading Lucy Prebble’s script, it works quite well in these vital scenes – they’re damning to Enron and its traders, but only if we can hear it. Bare on the page, the words were powerful and left me breathless in shock. On the stage --yes, we all get the symbolism of the darkened stage and the use of the lasers, but the words were obfuscated and that was a shame.

This production made me think of “Chess” in that all the leading actors in its NY production were 10-15 years too young for the roles, so the story made no sense at all. Maybe “Enron,” too, worked better in Britain, where they didn’t slice up the script as was done here. Perhaps the actors didn’t leap around the stage with unnecessary choreography and jump frog over plot points. Somehow this play ran 2.5 hours without finding a theatrical end to the story.

As it stands on Broadway, the loud packaging is drowning out the content of the play I read. The jaw-dropping war fought against the state of California by Enron is devastating on the page and meaningless on the stage. Cut the laser-saber dance please. It seems to me that Rupert Goold , who also directed in London, couldn’t decide 1) what the play’s about and 2) what style/genre it is. Is this a drama or is it a satire? What’s showing up is an unbalanced mix and a bit of a mess, and right now “Enron” is not rising to the occasion.

Is this the right time for this play? You betcha. Is this the right play? Not quite.

Ms. Prebble may be too busy manipulating the audience’s emotions, the anger that already exists, pushing buttons, to pay attention to the basic requirements of a play: conflict and resolution.

  • Conflict existed in the first half of the play, clear and dynamic conflict between Roe and Skilling -- but it left at intermission.
  • Resolution as it stands is that Skilling goes to prison, but that’s not theatrical resolution. Theatrical resolution was absent.

Skilling’s journey is Enron’s journey. His transformation from a nerd with no social skills to trim glad-hander is impressive in Butz’s performance and in his excellent costume design -- from a sloppy back office suit to a well-tailored suit to an orange jumpsuit. Besides the clothes and the rags to riches, did Skilling learn anything on his journey? Nothing.

While that may be reflective of reality, it’s not Theatre.

~ Molly Matera, disappointed and signing off.

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