Wall Street applauds as Enron the play dies on Broadway

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Enron the play goes the way of Enron the companyLast week, Enron, the play, opened on Broadway. The $3.9 million play, a Kafkaesque retelling of the feats of ego and creative accounting that led to the largest corporate collapse in the history of the universe, was an import from London, where it has been successfully running for months. But on Sunday, Enron will die for a second time.

Here, it will have played just 16 performances since it opened to critics. Its spectacular failure can't be blamed on its critical reception, which was mostly mixed but hardly scathing. In fact, it earned four Tony nominations (none in a major category) this week. But even if it wins, it won't live to see the awards ceremony.

What went wrong? The British press has hinted the cause might be xenophobia (the playwright and director are both British). That doesn't ring true because most audience members wouldn't have known its origins. And even the Houston Chronicle, the paper at ground zero of the company's implosion of greed, called it "superbly acted and ably directed." The nominations seem to prove it isn't a matter of talent. Instead, it's a matter of taste.

The top ticket price for Enron is a brutal $121.50, before service charges. For that, audiences are treated to a thought-provoking two-and-a-half-hour morality tale in which voracious nerd Jeff Skilling (Norbert Leo Butz) smugly informs all those gathered that the essence of the modern economy is but a fancy, and the winners are those who are clever enough to manipulate it. Meanwhile, in a fantastical twist, his cohort Andy Fastow (Stephen Kunken, one of the nominees) feeds fistfuls of cash to an ever-growing menagerie of debt-eating dinosaurs secretly stashed in the basement of the corporate citadel.

That's an ugly fun-house mirror to stare at when you just got off work on Wall Street. The producers of Enron learned too late that you should never skewer the economic values of the only people who can afford your $125 tickets.

Americans, the play theorizes, believe that companies and products are worth something merely because we collectively agree they're worth something, not because they truly have value beyond our group hunches. All modern progress can be linked to investors gaming the system by surfing atop a succession of economic bubbles, from the Civil War to World War II to the dot-com boom. There are panics, and there are bubbles, and then there are the wizards who know how to milk them both.

I saw the show minutes after the closing notice was announced, and the audience's resistance to the show's portrayal of America's confidence-reliant financial institutions was palpable. As the playwright's moral crystallized, a white-haired gentleman behind me began shifting in his seat. "Disgusting," he muttered.

But when investors start to doubt the true worth of their blue-chip investments, the chimera of value can vanish. That economics lesson likens the underpinnings our entire financial system to nothing but a game in which the losers are the last ones to cotton on to the lies told by media-worshiped CEOs and double-talking public relations experts.

Still, watching the markets take a 1,000-point dive based mostly on the disintegrating situation in Greece, it's hard to argue strongly against the idea that in our new global economy, perception is everything. It's what caused the real Enron to quickly inflate to monstrous size and then crumble into a blot on our history books. And when Enron the play closes because it fails to garner Tony nominations in the most prestigious categories, it only underscores the essential cynicism of its central points. Image means money.


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