Sunday, April 18, 2010

Enron: Full of Sound and Fury, But Signifying Precious Little

Was the irony intentional?

Enron, the much-anticipated British theatrical import about the rise and fall of the Enron Corporation, resembles in no small way the smoke-and-mirrors humbuggery of the business it depicts.

Full of flash and noise, with a cast of 17 headed up by an impressively energized and buffed-up Norbert Leo Butz and presented to us by an even larger number of producers (33), Enron tells the familiar and ugly tale of greed run amok, and the “smartest guys in the room” who helped bring about the current financial mess from which we are still groping to extricate ourselves.

is the second play by Lucy Prebble, possibly more well known for her work as the creator of the Showtime network’s “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” and the play itself has the glib manner of a splashy but thinly-written television series.

As Prebble tells it, the Enron scandal was precipitated by a grandiose pyramid scheme that was doomed to fail, and the corporation collapsed under mounting debts and desperate efforts to hide its losses; you can rob Peter to pay Paul just so long before things fall apart. Frankly, this all could be told with a few PowerPoint slides in the style of Al Gore’s global warming road show.

But Enron eschews the slides and instead tries to distract the audience with big production values, music, bombastic theatrics, extravagant projections, and a cast that sells itself like a group of high-earning sales representatives for Amway or Mary Kay.

About the cast there is little to complain. Mr. Butz gives a bravura performance as Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, the central figure in the scandal; it is exhausting just to watch him go through his paces (he runs on a pretend treadmill and does real sit-ups during a one-on-one business meeting). I also was taken with Stephen Kunken's performance as Skilling’s partner-in-crime, Enron CFO Andy Fastow, and with that of Gregory Itzin as Enron board chairman Kenneth Lay. The usually glorious Marin Mazzie unfortunately isn’t given enough of significance to do in the role of a made-up character, that of Skilling's sexual partner and chief rival.

In the end, we may feel a certain schadenfreude when the villains get their comeuppance, but we have been given no characters that we care two figs about. Tales about the fall of kings are very Shakespearean, of course, but a wiser choice might have been to juxtapose a parallel story about the plight of the “worker bee” employees of Enron who lost their life savings when they were seduced into buying shares of the corporation’s stock—largely for the purpose of helping to maintain the pyramid just a little longer.

Director Rupert Goold certainly keeps things moving at a breakneck pace, but for all its display of fireworks, Enron ultimately fizzles.

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