Enron Exposes the Criminal Roots of Irrational Exuberance
Norfolk’s Generic Theater opened its 31st season Friday night (Sept. 9) with the Virginia debut of British playwright Lucy Prebble's Enron, a seriously ambitious project for a company of avocational actors and technicians who are not likely to make even gas money for their obvious hard work and dedication. Let’s hope, at least, they get an excess of love and appreciation from packed houses for bringing this important show to the stage way-down-under in Chrysler Hall.
Do you remember Enron? I barely did, after the mind-numbing procession of corporate malfeasance that followed, continuing, of course, to this day. Yet remembering the Enron scandal is instructional, for with hindsight it becomes apparent that the energy company’s collapse was a canary in a coal mine. It signaled the presence of the subtle poison of self-undoing which unregulated free market capitalism had injected into our social contract, especially when practiced by certain highly torqued alpha males whose natural habitat is Texas.
Not that Texas has a monopoly on toxic alpha males in this land of the free. Wherever brains and massive ego outweigh common sense and old-fashioned decency, you will find the Jeff Skillings and Andy Fastows of this world busy dreaming, scheming, and making deals—smart guys who vastly underestimate their capacity for human error or, in obsolete parlance, Biblical sin.
“Sin,” in fact, may be the appropriate word for it, since Enron, though disguised as a contemporary docu-drama (if ten to fifteen years ago can be called contemporary), is really a traditional tale of three men in positions every bit as powerful as any classic monarch (Ken Lay) and his most trusted lords (Skilling and Fastow), whose vaulting ambition brings them down and, with them, many thousands of ordinary folks tied to their fortunes. You remember the news stories. What those guys pulled off was too clever for common understanding. It took place in an orgy of self-indulgence and narcissism, the epitome of Baby-Boomer excess, where somehow veneration for a pantheon of psychedelic saints morphed into a giddy chase after ever-more clever ways of appearing uber-rich when, in fact, there was no money in the bank, let alone illumination in the mind.
Matt Friedman, whose sharp direction was behind last season’s satisfying Darwin in Malibu at the Generic, takes up the formidable chore of bringing Enron to fulfillment as a large-cast musical with high-tech edge. Video projections surround the audience on three sides at regular intervals, with a main screen high on an upstage wall. Voice-overs and a library of music cues and sound bytes provide a cinematic overlay to the live action. Sophisticated lighting, enhanced with all manner of colored novelty blinkers and pulsers, add energy and excitement to much of the action. A cast of 24, many playing multiple roles, including singing and dancing, must have required countless hours of rehearsal. Don’t even ask how Matt Friedman spent his summer.
Of course, it’s the story that carries the play, and it’s the characters who weave the story. In Enron, Playwright Prebble manages to create a fairly riveting narrative of a complex, even arcane, web of financial maneuvers and manipulations that I, for one, strain in vain to comprehend. But I can understand what it’s adding up to because the characters, in their arcs from a rising “irrational exuberance” to descent into ruin and disgrace, are clear.
Ken Lay, the founder of Enron, likes to see himself as the benevolent patriarch of the corporation. As played by Chris Kypros, he comes across as an old-fashioned Chamber-of-Commerce type who believes business is America’s religion. He easily becomes enabler to the get-rich-quick schemes proposed by Skilling, played by Kent Collins, who himself is brought to a higher level of corruption by a numbers man, Andy Fastow, played by Ethan Marten.
Marten’s Fastow—bordering on psychopathic—is a work of art, a stand-out performance. His accounting bargain with the devil, symbolized by three dancing reptilian figures he plays with like a lion trainer, is the show’s most pointed, poison-tipped dagger. Collin’s Skilling, on the other hand, is much less blind to the danger he’s in and so more vulnerable. His undoing is his ego-mania, his arrogant conviction that he’s smarter than anyone else. Collins is convincing as the confident Skilling but less emotionally certain of the ruined Skilling, who was ultimately convicted of nineteen counts of conspiracy and fraud and sentenced to 24 years in prison, a mighty fall for a proud elitist. Fastow, by cooperating with prosecutors, got off with two counts and six years, though he was the brains behind the creative accounting that led to a debt of $30 billion and, in 2002, bankruptcy of a company once considered the leading light of American business genius.
As for Lay, he was charged with six criminal offenses but died before trial of a reported heart failure tainted by the suspicion he may have deliberately fallen on his own sword.
Completing the principal characters is Claudia Roe, played alluringly by Generic President Jeannette Rainey. Lay passes her over in favor of Skilling as company CEO, which turns a casual sexual relationship between her and Skilling into a smoldering distrust. Skilling eventually forces her out of the company, which saves her from prosecution later when the big guys fall. In the final analysis, it would not be too far wrong to say Roe is the play’s only winner, for her special project—a real-world power plant in India—is the only success that still stands when the giant house of cards built by the others finally falls. She’s also the only one of the bunch who’s honest, though her ambition is considerable as well. Rainey conveys these complexities with assurance.
Surrounding the principles are countless bits of competent performances by actors too numerous to name, the largely anonymous employees, investment analysts, traders, journalists, and family members of the principals—a vast chorus of citizens who appear and disappear in one fast-paced scene after another. Without them, the play would lose its sweeping scope, recreating a national rather than an individual tragedy.
Yet that sweeping scope brings with it enormous technical considerations, not the least of which is a scene change every few minutes. It’s nearly a three-hour play, so that’s a lot of scene changes. As the play wraps up, running crew members pushing flats and furniture about in the dark compete for focus with short scenes of denouement unfolding in various locations in the light. Meanwhile, opening night nerves and glitches were at times obvious throughout but will no doubt smooth over as the play’s run continues.
No mere theater review can do justice to the enormous investment of local time and talent that has gone into this production. But with video newscast performances by WTKR Channel 3 news anchor Barbara Ciara and WHRV/WHRO talk-show host Cathy Lewis splashed on the theater walls, you can begin to understand the scope of community involvement and support. Meanwhile, network video archives of some of our favorite political celebrities of the era—Enron cronies Bill Clinton, Alan Greenspan, and both George Bushes, to name the most prominent—remind us that Enron was a national scandal, not merely another case of corporate bad apples caught red-handed. We may not have known much about Enron at the time, but most of us voted for at least one of those enabling politicians, making us complicit.
Why retell this story now? The answer should be obvious to anyone who’s paying attention. The problem was never fixed. And at the 10th anniversary of 9-11, it’s impossible not to notice the synchronicity of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers with the collapse of Enron. Remembering that it was Osama bin Laden’s stated objective to bleed America until it is bankrupt, we can speculate that he needn’t have bothered. We’re obviously capable of bankrupting ourselves. Much of what we see in the flawed characters of Lay, Skilling, and Fastow is reflected in our own national hubris. There is a price to be paid for projecting ourselves as the best and smartest in the world, which is how we like to see ourselves. (Few outside our borders agree.) The Generic’s respectably professional, entertaining production is a must-see for any American seeking perspective on our current state of multiple national emergencies.
Enron continues at the Generic Thursday through Sunday until Oct. 2. All performances are at 8 except for Sunday matinees at 2:30. Tickets are $15 general admission, $12 for seniors, military, and students, and $10 for groups of ten or more. For information and reservations, call 757-441-2160 or, on the web, go to generictheater.org.