The world of business and accounting has not traditionally inspired much in the way of song and dance. But one of the biggest hits in London's West End these days is the play, "Enron0", a highly entertaining account of the Texan energy company's dizzying rise and fall. The production will soon cross the Atlantic, opening at the Broadhurst Theater, a Broadway venue in New York, on April 27th.
The timing could hardly be better. While Enron imploded nine years ago in what was then the biggest bankruptcy in history, the current Lehman Brothers situation is eerily reminiscent of that debacle.
Earlier this month, the bankruptcy court examiner for Lehman Brothers reported that the bank -- much like Enron -- used dubious accounting to conceal its financial weakness before its 2008 collapse. Then there's the fact that Enron's demise led to the downfall of its accountants, Arthur Andersen. This time around, Lehman's fall has battered the reputation of Ernst & Young, which has been accused of professional negligence in its audit of the bank's financial statements.
"Enron," the play, provides a sickening yet perversely enjoyable account of how we landed ourselves in that mess, and hint at the parallel lessons from Lehman Brothers as well.
'Prepared to Lose'
The action begins at a corporate party where we first meet Jeffrey Skilling, whose colleagues idolize him as the architect of Enron's move to mark-to-market accounting: a financial ruse that enables the firm to treat future profits as if they're already in the bag. Skilling wins a power struggle to take over as Enron's CEO and begins to implement his vision of shifting the company away from a tiresome focus on developing real assets, and towards a more lucrative emphasis on nebulous businesses such as trading energy and bandwidth.
Samuel West, the son of Prunella Scales -- famed for her role as Basil Fawlty's wife in the cult TV show Fawlty Towers -- stars in the London production as Skilling. He portrays the corporate chieftain as clever, arrogant, greedy and amoral, a man whose idea of parenting is to calculate for his daughter how long it would take to count $1 billion. (His answer: 32 years.)
West skillfully conveys Skilling's disdain for those who aren't as smart or competitive as he is, spitting out lines about government employees who are "too dumb to go into the private sector." In one scene, a trader recounts a frightening day when his trades lost millions, then proudly recalls how Skilling applauded his courage, telling him: "Only people who are prepared to lose are ever gonna win."
It's a world where making money is all that counts, and that point is neatly reinforced by an on-stage ticker displaying Enron's stock price throughout the play. In one dazzling scene, traders sing and dance while a projector bathes them in glowing share prices in a kaleidoscope of finance.
Hiding Debts, Showing Off
Skilling's brand of rapacious capitalism is facilitated by the financial ingenuity of his chief financial officer, Andrew Fastow, who gazes longingly at him like a love-stricken teen. In one brilliant scene, Fastow presents a chilling finance lesson, explaining to Skilling how they can create entities in which Enron will hide its mounting debts. Fastow illustrates his point by brandishing a box within a box within a box, showing how these off-the-books subsidiaries can help to disguise the company's losses as profits.
These subsidiaries, known as raptors, are later depicted by actors wearing lizard-like heads. As Enron's debts veer out of control, Fastow is shown desperately trying to calm these terrifying creatures, which munch insatiably on dollar bills.
Skilling is further enabled by Enron's chairman, Ken Lay, played by Tim Pigott-Smith (Lord Ascot in Tim Burton's recent film version of Alice in Wonderland). He portrays Lay as a negligent, self-important, cigar-chomping Texan who cares more about playing golf than safeguarding the financial interests of his company's shareholders.
Lay prides himself on his connections, declaring that "some of my best friends are politicians" and showing off his birthday card from George W. Bush, who addresses him as "Kenny Boy." Lay focuses his attention on priorities like choosing upholstery fabric for the Enron jet, hobnobbing with California Governor Gray Davis and complaining that he's not allowed to smoke indoors. Shortly before Enron implodes, he proclaims: "Don't you worry about anything here -- I'm a safe pair of hands."
Hapless Lawyers, Accountants and Analysts
Lucy Prebble, who spent five years writing "Enron" and was 28-years-old when it premiered in 2009, provides an equally bleak view of others whose cynicism or haplessness contributed to the Enron scandal.
A trio of Enron lawyers appears on stage wearing blindfolds, cheerfully passing the buck to an Arthur Andersen accountant who makes decisions about the company's financial maneuvers through conversations with a hand puppet. Two bankers appear as Siamese twins, wearing a single, oversized overcoat and speaking in tandem. Incapable of independent thought, they are comically eager to invest in this debt-ridden time bomb, with no questions asked.
The stock analysts who covered Enron with giddy enthusiasm appear in a similarly unflattering light. A quartet of these cheerleaders literally sings the company's praises, belting out the lines: "Jeff Skilling, he's our man, if he can't do it no one can. He's the man with the master plan."
The Cost of Blind Faith
In the end, of course, their confidence is exposed as blind faith: Enron's stock plunges from $95 to $1 in just 24 days as it becomes clear that the company is little more than a house of cards. Skilling ends up in jail for 24 years, while Kenneth Lay suffers a heart attack and dies while under investigation.
The play's recounting of this costly farce is good, subversive fun, but it also holds a very dark message about the chaos that unfettered greed and financial sleight of hand can create. By the time Skilling is dragged away in handcuffs, 29,000 employees -- who had been encouraged to "invest in themselves" by buying Enron stock -- have lost their jobs and their savings.
What makes the play so provocative is our awareness now that Enron was hardly alone, that it was just one villain in a global financial system that was rotting at the core. We've since witnessed the meltdown of such giants as Lehman, Bear Stearns, AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which puts Enron, both the musical and the company, in a new light. Unapologetic to the end, Skilling puts it best when he hauntingly declares: "We didn't do anything any other company doesn't do. We did it more and we did it better."