There’s No Business Like a Show About Business

enron0141 There’s No Business Like a Show About Business Enron, the hit London import that opened last night at the Broadhurst Theatre, is a surprising and remarkable creation: It’s a two-and-a-half-hour lecture on business history, and it’s utterly thrilling.

Credit for this feat of alchemy goes primarily to second-time playwright Lucy Prebble, and her director, Rupert Goold, artistic director of London’s Headlong Theatre, which commissioned Enron. Together, they take the seemingly dry subject matter and, with a clever, tightly constructed script and dark, menacing, inventive staging, produce a vibrant, deeply theatrical experience.

There are songs, but it’s not a musical. There are laughs, but it’s not a comedy. Enron is history as avant-garde burlesque. “When we tell you his story,” says the lawyer for disgraced CEO Jeffrey Skilling, serving as an emcee, “you should know it could never be exactly what happened. But we’re gonna put it together and sell it to you as the truth.” It’s what theater does, and it’s what Enron did.

The script covers a wide swath. Direct-address history lessons on Alfred P. Sloan and mark-to-market accounting and structured debt join song-and-dance numbers celebrating commodities trading and spoofing enamored stock analysts, which is layered atop the character-driven morality tale that is the rise and fall of names you remember, like Skilling, Ken Lay and Andy Fastow. It indicts the rest of corporate America, capitalism at large, the Clinton administration and, of course, George W. Bush, whose presidential campaign, the play suggests, was largely funded by Enron, so that his administration would deregulate the electricity market.

The Enron board of directors are blind mice; the go-along-get-along accountants at Arthur Andersen are represented by a puppet; and the shadow companies that hold Enron’s debt and will eventually destroy it are red-eyed velociraptors, trolling the dungeon that is Fastow’s finance department and feeding on cash. Enron’s stock price is constantly ticking past on the upstage wall, rising, rising, rising—until suddenly, disastrously, it’s not.

Norbert Leo Butz stars as Skilling, the visionary CEO who leads Enron to become a corporate powerhouse, the most admired company in the world, by inventing new businesses for it—energy trading, weather-based derivatives, a bandwidth exchange—that don’t actually produce revenue. He’s charming, smarmy, defiant and excellent. Marin Mazzie is sexy and commanding as the fictional Claudia Roe, the one Enron exec to challenge Skilling; she favors tangible assets—power plants—over Skilling’s trades and swaps.

Gregory Itzin makes Ken Lay, the chairman, into an avuncular buffoon—a man who enjoys the trappings of power and knows enough about what’s going on in the office to know he doesn’t want to know about it. Stephen Kunken makes Fastow, the CFO whose schemes brought down the company, a needy nerd so desperate for Skilling’s respect and attention that he invented ways to hide all those losses—and named his son Jeffrey.

Enron ends with an interesting twist: An incarcerated Skilling arguing that bubbles are ultimately good for society. One brought us the railroads, he says; another the Internet. Perhaps. But I’m not sure what of use Enron’s bubble brought us (tricks for hiding debt? Bush?), except this: one hell of a play about it.

AS THE SUFFOCATING paterfamilias Troy Maxson in the emotionally wrenching revival of August Wilson’s Fences that opened at the Cort Theatre Monday night, Denzel Washington—two-time Academy Award winner, with his first name as big as the title on the marquee—is intense and fiercely charismatic, but he’s also a little bit latter-day Pacino, from the why-is-he-shouting-so-much school of acting. 

This is the first Broadway revival of Fences since its 1987 debut, which won Wilson a Tony and his first Pulitzer, and no doubt that’s thanks to Mr. Washington’s presence. It is part of Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, about the African-American experience in the 20th century, and it’s directed here by Kenny Leon, who mounted the full cycle at the Kennedy Center two years ago.

Fences is set in 1957, as the world is beginning to pivot around Troy. The son of a sharecropper, he was a gifted baseball player, but before the integration of the Major Leagues. Now he’s a garbageman, but the only one forceful enough to ask the boss why only white men are allowed to drive the trucks. His son Cory is a high-school football star, about to be recruited to play in college, but Troy won’t allow it, maybe to protect his son—he learned the hard way that white men won’t allow black men to succeed through sports—or maybe to protect himself, because he’s afraid his son will achieve and outshine him. He’s been diminished by the outside world, but in the home he shares with his wife, Rose, and three children from three different relationships—a small, worn brick house, with a patch of dirt yard—he must reign supreme. Ultimately, this drives away his son, his wife, his best friend.