Never doubt the power of the Tonys, at least when it comes to marketing a show. No sooner had the Tony nominations come out than the producers of the new play Enron announced that the struggling show, which opened April 27th to decidedly mixed reviews and weak grosses, would be closing Sunday, May 9th after only 12 days of regular performances. The producers were likely hoping for more than just the four nominations that the show received, but alas, the all-important nod for Best Play was not among the four.
I have to say that I'd feel a lot worse for the Enron folks if the play itself were any good. But, in my humble estimation, it is not. I saw the show last weekend, before the closure announcement, and it wasn't anywhere near the electrifying experience I had been led to expect.
Enron was the one play of the season that I was actively looking forward to. That's probably because I had heard that it was sort of a play/musical hybrid, with ample amounts of dance, music, and stylistic touches. Plus, I had heard that the cast would feature Broadway musical stalwarts Norbert Leo Butz and Marin Mazzie. The New York Times even referred to the show as a musical in one of its Arts, Briefly notes. (The Gray Lady later appended that article with a note that, despite the songs and dancing, author Lucy Prebble considers it a play.)
After the reviews for Enron came out, I heard some speculation that the New York production wasn't well received because Americans don't like to see themselves criticized. Sorry, I don't buy that. You'd be hard pressed to find an American who would defend Enron, or to take any attack on Enron personally. No, it comes down to the effectiveness of the play itself. Despite an acclaimed London run, Enron seems to have lost something in translation. Rumor has it that director Rupert Goold was only able to spend two weeks rehearsing with the cast because of his schedule. But it's not clear to me that more rehearsal would have made much difference. It wasn't the presentation that was lacking, but rather the substance of the play itself.Enron is certainly well-presented, but the dramaturgy is pedestrian. I'll say one thing for Prebble: she made the abstruse financial machinations almost comprehensible. But the play has no point of view, other than "Gee, weren't these guys greedy and evil?" Theatre thrives on ambiguity and nuance, and there's precious little of either in Prebble's play. There were a few times when I thought I was getting a glimpse of the people behind the disaster, particularly in the final monologue of Jeff Skilling (played here with characteristic aplomb by Butz):
You wanna hold a mirror up to nature? [A projection reveals a graph of the Dow Jones Index over the last century.] There's your mirror. Every dip, every crash, every bubble that's burst, that's you...This one gave us the railroads. This one the Internet. This one the slave trade. And if you wanna do anything about saving the environment or getting to other worlds, you'll need a bubble for that, too.
That's a fairly interesting insight, but that's really all we get, and it comes after a lot of unconvincing drama and plodding dialog. In one of the first scenes, the Andy Fastow character (played rather broadly by Stephen Kunken) is at an Enron party, and says (to no one in particular) "Look, even Ken Lay is here." In a later scene, Fastow is being bullied by some of the energy traders, and says "I'll remember this when I'm CFO." That kind of ham-handed indication should have been edited out after the first draft.
Prebble also traffics in facile and obvious metaphors: the arcane financial instruments become corporeal "raptors," in a reference to "Jurassic Park." And the energy traders take on the countenance of Jedi knights, complete with a light-saber-laden dance number. Now it's entirely likely that Prebble took those cultural references directly from the Enron folk themselves, but accuracy doesn't necessarily translate into inspiration.
I will admit that it was illuminating to see the extent to which the Bush family, George W. in particular, was in bed with the Enron folk, and relied heavily on financial contributions from same. It was also eye-opening to see how soon-to-be governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger was involved, with particular regard to the disastrous deregulation of electricity in California, which led to the rolling blackouts in 2000 and 2001. The implication was that Enron helped get The Terminator into office, specifically with the goal of bringing about deregulation. But all that info is readily available elsewhere. If you're looking for some insight into the Enron fiasco, you're better off reading The Smartest Guys in the Room or renting the 2005 movie version.
Despite the play's flaws, it's possible that Enron could have found a receptive audience. I find it really hard to believe that, with this many producers (IBDB lists a whopping 34), there weren't sufficient cash reserves to allow the show time to catch on. But they probably saw the show's gross go down one week after the reviews came out and just panicked. (I'm sure there's an incisive parallel in there somewhere with the investor panic involved in the collapse of Enron, but I really can't be bothered.)
GRADE: B minus (Not nearly as insightful or thrilling as it thinks it ought to be)