by Michael Connor
One of the keys to the fraud that brought down Enron Corporation almost a decade ago was a series of off-balance sheet financial entities that allowed the giant energy company to hide mounting losses and orchestrate corporate earnings reports. Andrew Fastow, the company’s ambitious chief financial officer, named some of these investment vehicles “Raptors”.
In “Enron,” the new semi-musical just opened on Broadway, the raptors are physically portrayed by actors as Jurassic Park-like beasts that voraciously gobble debt from briefcases. As Enron’s tale of greed and corruption unfolds, Fastow’s relationship with the raptors becomes more harried and manic. The raptors become ill, unable to digest any more of the phony financials. The scheme unravels, forcing Enron into bankruptcy, the largest on record at the time. Billions are lost. Countless investors and employees are hurt in the process.
“Enron” the play tries hard to stimulate, dazzle and entertain. The problem is that it tries too hard. In the process it dilutes the authentic drama and power of the story behind Enron the company, a real-life corporate tragedy that really needed no embellishment.
It’s not that playwright Lucy Prebble hasn’t done her homework – in fact, “Enron” does a pretty good job of explaining the many layers of questionable practices that led to the downfall of the company and its senior executives. An ambitious young president, Jeffrey Skilling (played by Norbert Leo Butz), impresses company founder Kenneth Lay (Gregory Itzin) with the notion of “mark to market” accounting, abusing the practice to inflate earnings and asset values. Skilling encourages CFO Fastow (Stephen Kunken) in the creation of Enron’s “special purpose entities,” including the notorious LJM partnerships that were named using the initials of Fastow’s wife and children.
“Changing the World”
While the play focuses on Skilling and Fastow, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Enron founder Lay is a glad-handing chairman who orchestrates the company’s board (portrayed by three blind mice). Wall Street firms make cash investments in Fastow’s dubious financial shenanigans, and their research analysts write favorable reports on Enron, out of fear that they will miss out on lucrative stock underwriting and financing deals. The esteemed accounting firm of Arthur Andersen signs off on all of it and is forced into bankruptcy when the scandal unfolds.
Feeding the Enron frenzy, of course, was a booming 1990’s stock market, rich with hot technology and Internet startups. Prebble’s script captures some of that fact and flavor: Enron’s attempt to cast itself as a broadband Internet access provider, despite a complete lack of resource and experience in the field, is one of many examples of the hubris that afflicted Skilling. As young Enron executives party to a techno-beat, ringing in the next millennium at a New Year’s party in 2000, Skilling exults: “We are changing people’s lives! We are changing the world!” He seems to believe it.
The biggest problem with “Enron” is that it doesn’t work as a play. Promoted in part as a musical, the show has a handful of numbers by a well-intentioned but forgettable chorus. There’s no danger that any audience member will leave the theater humming a memorable tune, because there are none. In the end, “Enron” seems to be talking down to its audience, using stage effects to make financial concepts more palatable. That probably isn’t necessary, certainly after the last couple of years. Most Americans, unfortunately, now understand a good financial scandal when they see one.