Theater archives

Enron Collapses; Collected Stories and Fences Stand Firm


Bernard Shaw once joked that, if he wrote an opera called The Wealth of Nations, and named the hero “Adam Smith,” some innocent would immediately praise the overture for being full of Political Economy. That joke tells you a lot about those who admire Lucy Prebble’s Enron (Broadhurst Theatre). Corporate disaster is inherently dramatic: We ought to have a great play dealing with the giant energy company’s collapse in a welter of corporate fraud, but Prebble hasn’t written it. The work’s enthusiasts—or should we say “apologists?”—have cooked up various explanations for New York’s lackluster response to it, but the plain truth is that its supporters have simply mistaken the will for the deed. Because they feel that the theater must address topics like Enron, a point on which I heartily concur, they want to believe that Enron succeeds. Regrettably, it doesn’t.

Not that Prebble’s work is either foolhardy or ineffectual. Her trouble comes from an excess of ambitions: Faced with a gigantic subject offering a multiplicity of approaches, she has tried to write several plays at once, and not managed to finish any of them; they keep crowding each other out of the way.

One is the factual chronicle: what happened to Enron and how. A second is a psychological drama, mapping the motives and conflicts of the people who made it happen. Third comes the large-scale social drama of Enron’s effect on the outside world: the firms it influenced and took down with it; the investors, trading partners, and employees it lured on and ultimately injured or destroyed. And beyond all that, waiting for a writer of Brechtian stature, skill, and mordancy, lies the world-class story of corporate culture: the drama of what combination of forces, in our global marketing society, tempts people to build a collapsible monstrosity like Enron—and tempts others, who should know better, not to stop them. Today’s theater is hardly conducive to that work: You might as soon expect Prebble to toss off a merger of St. Joan of the Stockyards and Part Two of Faust.

Much of Prebble’s failure, demonstrating what makes today’s theater un-conducive to works of great scope, stems from that over-glorified art, directing, the shortcomings of which are nicely summed up in the work of Enron‘s director, Rupert Goold. As two productions have now made clear, Goold is just another of those glib idiots the field spawns, eager to grab at any showy device without ever thinking about whether it enriches the work’s meaning, or even how old-hat it might be. People who’ve complained about Enron‘s erratic dramaturgy might recall that not long ago Goold made similar dramatic hash of a rather better play called Macbeth. In Enron we get frenetic disco parties, fireworks displays, and actors costumed as raptors (because Andy Fastow called the accounts into which he shoveled the firm’s concealed debt “raptors”). At least this time Goold spares us the Scottish royal family’s industrial-size kitchen sink.

The raptors may not be Goold’s bad idea; they’re in the current script. But their cutesiness injures the tone of Prebble’s otherwise serious writing, which mostly seems an earnest, though less than convincing, attempt to convey how corporate higher-ups talk while infighting. She strives to capture the public platitudes that mask their squabbles, the frenzied trader-jabber that heats up fiscal maneuvers, the web of connections between the moneyed elite and politicos. Her efforts rarely get beyond noting that these extremely old news items exist.

Enron has been attacked as anti-American, but its only consolation for British audiences lies in its quietly ignoring the similarly shady dealings, now likewise old news, of Europe’s financial and legal institutions. Mostly, what’s worth watching in Enron are the energetic performances of Norbert Leo Butz, as Jeffrey Skilling, and Stephen Kunken, as Fastow. When Prebble tries to map their complex relations, you mostly wish the script were by David Mamet; when she shifts to the boardroom or the trading floor, you wish the producers had simply revived Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money, the shadow of which hangs heavy over Prebble’s fragmentary text.

Two familiar American plays, revived on Broadway with media stars, effectively give the lie to any snobbery about the alleged superiority of imported culture, demonstrating that we can do better ourselves even while catering to the mass hunger for celebrities. As a political debate about integrity in work and truth in marketing, Donald Margulies’s Collected Stories (Friedman Theatre) beats Enron all hollow, while August Wilson’s Fences (Cort Theatre) runs miles ahead of it as a study in the way social conditions collide with internalized conflicts to wreak human damage.

Collected Stories depicts, subtly, how writers transform and market personal experience—their own and others’. Through the evolving relationship between a mentor (Linda Lavin), of modest but admired achievements, and a disciple (Sarah Paulson), quick to learn and overeager for the big time, Margulies shapes an ingenious, sturdy paradigm for both creativity’s mysterious processes and the eternal challenges of art under capitalism. His comedy, freighted with deep emotions, offers its two performers grand opportunities. Lavin seizes hers with ineffable skill, discovering in the established writer a warmhearted, vulnerable, sardonically self-deprecating figure, where the late Uta Hagen found, with equal justification, an embittered downtown tigress. Paulson, not yet as attuned to her role as Lavin (who previously performed this play in L.A. and on PBS), traces her arc somewhat stiffly. But Lavin’s majestically unerring ease sweeps all stiffness aside.

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, in Fences, face a tougher task: filling the gigantic shoes left behind by James Earl Jones and Mary Alice, who originally created these roles. As an ex-con ex-athlete so bruised by life that he ultimately wrecks both his domestic peace and his son’s better chances, Washington channels grace, power, and a clarifying anger; Davis, quietly sustaining, matches him, only once tempted by audience vociferation into a moment of overplaying. Wilson’s rich, pain-laden script, a fascinating blend of chronicle and well-made play, comes through cleanly.