Proving once again that a talented writer can fashion a play out of just about anything, here comes “Enron”, British scribe Lucy Prebble’s look at the rise and fall of “America’s Most Innovative Company” which, in the 1990s, became the poster child for corporate greed and corruption.
Stage vet Norbert Leo Butz plays Jeffrey Skilling, the money-hungry, ego-driven mastermind of the billion dollar scheme who, at the beginning of the play, is just a nebbishy Enron accountant but is soon taking over as president and COO. Butz undergoes a remarkable transformation: as the company starts to rake in the dough he begins to trim down, firm up (even as his bank account fattens up), and radiate confidence as surely as the sun radiates heat. (There’s even a scene on a treadmill that Butz — lean and mean in a form-fitting gym suit — manages to pull off without even breaking a sweat; the Skilling we saw at the beginning of the play would have needed paramedics and an oxygen tank.)
Butz, as Skilling, tosses around his macho mantras like a guy trying out pick-up lines at a bar: life in the cutthroat world of big business is all about the survival of the fittest; businessmen vs. the bureaucrats determined to regulate them is simply a contest between “greed (even he’ll admit that) vs. ineptitude”; morality has no place in the corporate world.
It was Skilling’s show, his brainchild–according to Prebble, he pulled the strings; everyone around him was merely a puppet — which was precisely why he came crashing down the hardest and most painfully of all… while Ken Lay, the company’s founder and CEO, who gave Skilling the keys to the kingdom, died before he could begin serving his own prison sentence. Skilling had no such luck: ratted out by the men and women who worked for him, reduced in Prebble’s docudrama to staggering around in the street yelling at hookers, he was eventually sentenced to twenty to twenty-five years in prison. Unapologetic to the end, defiant even in defeat, Skilling paid the price for the billions of dollars he cost his employees and stockholders, and for Enron’s headfirst dive into bankruptcy.
Butz, who is never anything less than entertaining, is very good. The manic energy is still there, and you still wait for him to flash his musical comedy chops and break into song now and then (and though “Enron” is by no means a musical, there are some darkly funny song-and-dance numbers to enjoy), but he is, indisputably, the cold-hearted, avaricious Jeffrey Skilling. In smaller roles as his chief enablers, Gregory Itzin (of TV’s “24?) and Stephen Kunken — Ken Lay and CFO Andy Fastow, respectively — do fine work, too, as does Marin Mazzie as Claudia Roe, Skilling’s one-time squeeze and principal business rival whom he eventually convinces Lay to fire.
The real second banana, though, is the set, with the single word — ENRON — looming over the action for much of the opening act, and endless stock quotes streaming across the rear wall (high at the beginning, disastrously low at the end) most of the rest of the way. If the action weren’t so compelling — and it was; the two-and-a quarter hours flew by faster than you can say, “Where’s my money?” — we probably would have been perfectly happy enjoying the imaginative visuals that director Rupert Goold and his crackerjack team of designers had created.
In fact, what “Enron” lacks in heart (if it had been about the victims of the scam, it would have had plenty of heart — we would have had characters to root for, at least — but it focuses instead on the perpetrators, which makes for another kind of show altogether), it makes up for in pure spectacle.
It also, of course, serves as a cautionary tale about what can happen when crooks control the purse strings.
THEATER REVIEW by Stuart R. Brynien