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By Nicole Gelinas

After The Fall: Saving Capitalism From Wall Street--and Washington

Eye on the News

Nicole Gelinas
Why Enron Couldn’t Take Manhattan
New Yorkers don’t go to the theater for 3D restagings of 9/11.
13 May 2010

Broadway’s Enron production closed Sunday after 38 performances, losing $4 million. The original London production remains a smash hit. The play is quite good, and its divergent fate on this side of the Atlantic was avoidable. But director Rupert Goold proved obtuse at best—and cruel at worst—in forcing his audience to endure a cheap recreation of September 11, 2001.

Playwright Lucy Prebble turns the story of Enron, the Houston energy and trading company that filed the nation’s biggest bankruptcy case (up until then) in 2001, into a story about modern financial capitalism. Enron president Jeff Skilling (Norbert Leo Butz) and his rival for the top job, Claudia Roe (Marin Mazzie) are convincing. They present competing strategies to CEO Ken Lay (Gregory Itzen, of 24 fame). Skilling, who prevails, wants to harness pure markets, transforming any idea into a financial asset so that Enron can price, borrow, trade, and profit now. Roe wants to stick to the dirty work of building power plants. Sharp visuals complement the dialogue: traders stage a light-saber show to illustrate their manipulation of electricity markets.

A production of Enron on Broadway seemed a sure thing. New York is just as obsessed with the financial world as is London—and as eager for a good show. The play won unanimous raves from London critics. The Guardian called it an “exhilarating mix of political satire, modern morality and multimedia spectacle,” and the Mail praised Prebble as “brilliant” for her “creation of dinosaur-like creatures, which haunt the stage greedily guzzling” Enron’s debts until they can’t swallow any more.

So what happened? It depends who you ask. You could blame conservatives: producer Matthew Byam Shaw told the [London] Times Online that the show “confused and upset conservative Broadway audiences,” who found the play “un-American.” You could blame theater critic Ben Brantley: “After a determinedly unengaged and reductive review in the New York Times, the production was all but assured a quick death,” wrote an American correspondent for the Guardian. Or Goldman Sachs: “We opened with a sizable advance, but we ate into it during previews. Then the Goldman Sachs hearings began,” lead producer Jeffrey Richards told Bloomberg. Or cultural differences: “The show posits views directly antithetical to the American belief system: that innovation and talent aren’t supreme [and] that markets need to be regulated,” noted the Wall Street Journal’s Deal Journal.

Enron isn’t un-American, though. Prebble, a Brit, is really examining Anglo-Saxon financial capitalism. Nor is the play anti-market. Skilling emerges not as a villainous fraudster, but a tortured hero whose vision ultimately destroyed his company and himself. “I’m not a bad man,” he says. “I just wanted to change the world.” Pointing to a graph of the stock market’s history, he says, “Every dip, every crash, every bubble that’s burst, that’s you. Your brilliant stupidity. This one gave us the railroads. This one the Internet. . . . And if you wanna do anything about . . . reaching other worlds, you’ll need a bubble for that, too.” Free markets are messy, in other words, but vital.

Enron failed in New York because Prebble and Goold ruined it with a six-minute scene that stopped time and betrayed the audience. That Enron would treat 9/11 was not a surprise. The company collapsed just weeks after the attacks, and its executives did try to pin the firm’s bankruptcy on plummeting investor confidence post-9/11. But a good director knows when to show restraint.

Instead, Goold follows the surround sound of approaching airplanes with a fireball projected onto a ten-story, tower-shaped video screen. The black screen becomes the World Trade Center towers, and real scraps of paper and simulated debris flutter from the towers on stage. Enron’s Ken Lay gives a speech from inside the faltering towers before they vividly collapse. Suddenly and incongruously, it’s on to the comic scene of a Congressional hearing, even as the audience members are sickeningly staring at the paper 9/11 remains, which stay on stage for the rest of the play.

The play’s instant 9/11 simulation is like a sucker punch for which New York theatergoers had no fair warning. Oddly, none of the critics I’ve read mentioned the scene, though Brantley devoted a strange passage to “the design team keep[ing] the stage pulsing with flashing colors [and] rainstorms of sparks (and later, ashes).”

Even today, video replays of 9/11 can induce a physical reaction in New Yorkers. On the night that I attended the play, in previews, two people seated in the rows ahead of me left during the scene. Many viewers likely paid little attention to the final scenes of the play.

If Goold did not notice his audience’s visceral response to the previews, he’s an incompetent director. During the play’s first half, the audience and the actors interacted easily. Theatergoers were generous with their laughter, applause, and attention, and they were patient with the story. At intermission, the audience chatted comfortably. But shortly into the second act, along comes 9/11, and shocked audience members launched a quiet but seething strike. Funny scenes were met with frosty silence. At the end, the audience offered only tepid applause, though Butz’s performance, certainly, merited a standing ovation. The white-faced crowd headed silently for the exits.

It’s likely that Enron would still be running on Broadway if Goold had heard what his audience was trying to tell him. No New Yorker would subject his friends, relatives, or neighbors to this. Goold either didn’t get the message, or he chose not to compromise his creativity, such as it is. As a result, New Yorkers rejected Enron. And that, you might say, is how markets work.

Nicole Gelinas, contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, is author of After The Fall: Saving Capitalism From Wall Street—and Washington.

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