“We’re going to put it together and sell it to you as truth.” That opening description by a lawyer in “Enron” is deliciously double-edged. Not only is he articulating the company’s secret attitude to business ethics, he’s also encapsulating playwright Lucy Prebble’s fearlessly imaginative approach. With a zinger of a production from Rupert Goold, watching “the corporate crime that defined the end of the 20th century” isn’t just instructive, it’s a gloriously guilty pleasure.
Prebble holds to the chronology and trajectories of real events and players but frees herself from the steady demands of fact-driven documentary better suited to journalism or TV investigation. Any thoughts of a dialogue-heavy exploration of issues are swept aside by the exultant commodity-trading joyously choreographed by Scott Ambler as an energetic song ‘n’ dance number, or California’s re-regulation of electricity staged with lightsabers.
Creating a cross between an insightful analysis and a savage satire of high capitalism as moral vacuum, Prebble shifts attention away from Ken Lay (weighty but intriguingly benign-seeming Tim Pigott-Smith) and onto Jeffrey Skilling (Samuel West).
Unrecognizable at first thanks to padding, bad hair and glasses, West presents Skilling as a blinkered, initially thwarted man who succeeds by being monumentally driven. Maneuvering himself into the position of CEO at the expense of blonde bombshell ball-breaker Claudia Roe (Amanda Drew, all ice and fire), his vision redefines the company and makes good on his bid to “make Wall Street look like ‘Sesame Street.’ ”
Prebble’s ability to explain financial ideology and practice is impressive. Better yet, she does so in a theatrical rather than merely verbal way. In a scene not unlike the famous one in Terry Johnson’s “Insignificance” in which Marilyn Monroe uses a flashlight, a paperback and a toy train to explain relativity to Einstein, Prebble dramatizes the creation of Enron’s most revolutionary and illegal scam.
Andy Fastow (worried but hopeful Tom Goodman-Hill), the no-good-with-people financial guy, uses the boxes and office furniture of Anthony Ward’s super-sleek set to demonstrate to Skilling Enron’s Russian-doll-like “black box” investment model. The physicalization of the idea makes it not only comprehensible but engaging.
Equally vivid touches are to be found all over both script and production. Lehman Brothers is represented by two actors buttoned into one coat who speak in unison. The duplicity of accounting firm Arthur Andersen is deftly presented by an actor (Stephen Fewell) with his own ventriloquist’s dummy.
Physical metaphors become increasingly bold. Fastow describes financial risk as being like holding “Jurassic Park”-style raptors at bay. As the gap between Enron’s stated profits and its real losses yawns, the raptors are made flesh, gimlet eyes on animal heads shining in the dark, until they too start to fall. Andy stuffs their mouths with dollar bills, but they’re dying through literally toxic debt.
Ward and the rest of the design team collude beautifully to make numbers sexy. “Like a game of chess in fast forward, you see every possibility, you allow a thousand outcomes in a moment,” explains one of the traders as Jon Driscoll’s beautifully abstracted projections of row upon row of financial figures shimmy across not just the back wall but the white-shirted bodies of the perfectly drilled actors.
In the second half, as the downfall unravels, the inevitability and need for factual explication takes its toll on the dramaturgy. In Prebble’s “Coriolanus”-like portrayal of a man brought low by his arrogant self-belief, she is aiming for classical tragedy. But despite West’s marvelously precise performance of a man cracking under his own pressure, the portrait lacks pathos. The relationship between him and his young daughter is too schematic to flesh out the emotional relationship the audience needs.
But even if the play is slightly less than the sum of its parts, Goold’s bravura staging is never less than exhilarating. And if this shockingly entertaining evening ultimately feels a touch soulless, that’s actually a compliment. As in Caryl Churchill’s not dissimilar “Serious Money,” soullessness was the defining characteristic of the age.
The production is bound for the Royal Court for a limited run. Unlike the company that gave the play its name, “Enron” looks like a sound investment for those with pockets deep enough for a cast of 14.