What goes up must come down: Jennifer Boswell and Chris Hury in Theater Three’s Enron. Image outfront from PlanetThoughts
When it collapsed in 2001, Enron was the largest corporate bankruptcy in American history. And it would lead to the largest class-action suit against a company. The fate of the infamous Texas energy firm inspired Lucy Prebble’s drama, Enron. It was a hit in London, flopped on Broadway — and then went on to be staged all over Europe and America. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reviews the North Texas premiere at Theatre Three.
- Dallas Morning News review
- Pegasus News review
- TheaterJones review
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- Expanded online review:
Toward the end of Enron – the play — Enron — the company — is falling apart. By 2000, Jeffrey Skilling had turned a regular Houston oil-and-gas company into the first great American corporate engine of innovation – meaning the company traded energy, hid its debt and buffaloed the banks and the business media into believing it wasn’t a con. But now people are beginning to suspect the emperor has no cash flow. In Lucy Prebble’s play, Skilling (Chris Hury) orders his financial officer, Andy Fastow (David Goodwin), to lie to an investigative reporter from Forbes.
Skilling: You’re gonna explain we are not a black box
Fastow: But we are a black box, Jeffrey
Skilling: We are not. We are a logistics company with a ton of great ideas.
The term ‘black box’ does not refer to an in-flight recorder. Nor is it the device that killed / did not kill Schrodinger’s cat. In business, it refers to an old-style con game. You give me a ten-dollar bill. I put it in my fantastic black box, turn the crank and out come two ten-dollar bills. Hey, I’m offering you free money here. So you buy my box for a lot of cash. I scamper away with your money, while you find there’s nothing in the black box but a place to hide that second ten-dollar bill. A ‘black box’ means, then, a highly successful business whose inner workings are hidden — because if they weren’t hidden, you’d see that the little money going in and the big money coming out have little cause-and-effect relationship. It’s ‘magic money.’
People have argued about just what Prebble’s play is: a tragedy, a satire, even a musical? Actually, Enron is in the line of cautionary tales about cutthroat capitalism, stage dramas such as Other People’s Money by Jerry Sterner and Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money. This tradition goes all the way back to Jacobean city comedies when playwrights warned audiences about the latest styles in swindling. The recent dramas give an accessible form to our newest Darwinian advances in the financial world, whether that’s corporate raiding and assets sell-off in the Sterner play, underground trading in the Churchill or derivatives in the Pribble.
To help educate us tax-rate illiterates in the audience, these business sagas have tied stock prices to melodrama. In fact, their basic narrative structure is akin to a mad-scientist monster movie. Somebody discovers a brand-new method for making money and it takes over the financial world. As Skilling declares to the business journalists and potential investors: “Ladies and gentlemen, Enron’s a new kind of company. We are not just an energy company. We are a powerhouse for ideas. Electricity will be deregulated, and when it is, Enron will be right there, expanding our vision. The league we’re in, we’re not the Houston Oilers. We’re not even the Dallas Cowboys.
“We’re the whole damned NFL.”
By then the monster’s loose. And we learn how destructive it is because the play has us realize that the market and these not-fully-understood business practices are acting out our own worst instincts: greed, power-hunger, vengefulness.
Prebble does a terrific job of explaining just what Skilling and Fastow did inside the black box of Enron. One of her cleverer techniques is to pick up on Fastow’s term for the companies he created to hide Enron’s debt. He calls them ‘raptors’ — like the toothy dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (a mad scientist-monster movie). These little companies are raptors because they eat the debt. Onstage, the raptors are embodied as cute but carnivorous puppets, designed by David Goodwin.
What Prebble doesn’t do well is explain Jeffrey Skilling. He remains the real black box here. He’s not a cynical fraud like Bernie Madoff. He believes in what he’s doing; he actually likes to explain his schemes so people understand the principles involved. He believes a free market justifies anything he can get away with. Anyone who thinks differently, who believes the market should be regulated in some fashion is just one of the dumb losers who couldn’t play with the big boys in the real world. Yet Skilling never manages to explain what drives him. In the play, he comes across as just another hot-shot, loudmouthed stock trader or salesman — writ large, with more grandiose appetites, more ruthless instincts. So — what led this particular high roller to a sentence of 24 years in prison?
It’s a shame Prebble doesn’t give actor Chris Hury more to work with. Hury plays Skilling with furious conviction; he’s one of the strongest aspects of the Theatre Three staging. Hury’s become our leading, local expert on portraying heartless alpha males, the guys who don’t hesitate to run over you and grin.
In fact, the central quartet of actors — Hury, Doug Jackson as laidback Enron founder Ken Lay, Goodwin as Fastow, the turncoat accountant, and Jennifer Boswell as Skilling’s icy female adversary inside Enron — are all good. But it’s the overall Theatre Three production that doesn’t match them.
Director-designer Jeffrey Schmidt did a tremendous job last year making Theatre Three’s The Farnsworth Invention look sharp and stylish, elevating a Grade B drama with a Grade A production. Here, Enron looks mostly cheap and hasty. Schmidt wants to underline how improvised and jerry-built everything actually was with Enron, how it was just a rickety house of cards. Hence, too, Prebble’s use of showbiz ballyhoo — dancing and singing — to underscore Enron’s insubstantial nature. It’s all just a smile and a shoeshine.
But for Enron – the play — to work on us the way Skilling did on investors, Enron — the company — needs to gleam and swagger. It’s a Texas energy firm at the top of its game. Skilling and Lay are signing deals to stream videos online, they’re rolling dice on presidential elections. This is American corporate power and finance on a Faustian scale.
Oh, Prebble makes sure we’re appalled by all this: When Enron gave California electrical blackouts, they didn’t just inconvenience people while Skilling siphoned away profits. The blackouts killed people. And when Enron fell, it left tens of thousands of people unemployed, their retirement savings ruined. A foretaste of the recession we’re still suffering through.
But before we’re appalled, we need to understand how we got here, why we still haven’t solved these financial problems. We need to be excited and seduced by this vision of wealth and freedom and high-risk fun.
Because that’s how all good con games start.