Enron Flops Again -- This Time on Broadway

Enron, a failed energy company, is now also a failed Broadway play, as seen in this TImes Square billboard.
Enron, a failed energy company, is now also a failed Broadway play, as seen in this TImes Square billboard.

Last week's attempted terrorist bombing in Times Square didn't stop the theater curtains rising on Broadway. But a scathing review in The New York Times was powerful enough to destroy a much-anticipated production of Enron, the musical.

Ben Brantley, the newspaper's theater critic, excoriated the play as a "flashy but labored economics lesson," triggering its closure on Sunday after only 15 performances. Quite a surprise after the show's dazzling success in London's West End, where it was a critically adored hit.

What Went Wrong?

It wasn't just Brantley who was underwhelmed by the play, which recounts -- in song and dance -- the rise and fall of the Texan energy company that had once been the ultimate Wall Street darling. Part of the problem is that crisis-weary U.S. audiences have had far too many economics lessons of late. When Enron collapsed back in 2001, a stunned public watched with the impression that we were witnessing a once-in-a-generation event. Nowadays, financial scandal has become the norm, with companies like Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, AIG (AIG) and even Goldman Sachs (GS) losing their status as proud icons of American capitalism.

For theater-goers seeking a fun night out in America's financial capital, it was always going to be hard to relish a play that reminded them of the economic terrors they encountered in the news each day. With markets in turmoil, unemployment high and economic contagion striking everywhere from Greece to Spain -- and potentially the rest of the word -- Americans proved less than eager to pay up for a theatrical lesson about the perils of greed and corruption in the executive suite.

Sure, it's good to learn these lessons. But in times of trouble, escapism and denial are more appealing -- and Enron wasn't exactly escapist fare, reminding us as it did of how CEOs, bankers, analysts, accountants, lawyers and credulous investors all played their moronic part in the company's downfall.

Just Not in the Mood

Americans also weren't in the mood for a very British interpretation of a very American tragedy. Lucy Prebble, the play's 20-something English author, overstepped in bringing her brand of satire across the pond. In England, where I currently live, anything in the public arena is fair game for humorous mockery. Prime-time TV shows like Mock the Week feature comedians and pundits poking subversive, sardonic fun at politicians and celebs. But in Enron, some of the humor in Prebble's mockery of American society is lost in translation.

For all the talk of a special relationship, the British have an inexhaustible capacity to laugh at Americans. Having lost their empire, they apparently resent the American need to be the biggest and best at everything -- not least because it reminds them that they're no longer top dog. Laughing at Americans is a cheering form of consolation, and it's one reason why Prebble's play did so well in London.

When I saw it there with my English husband, he snickered away with the rest of the British audience at what they consider the absurdity of the thick Texan drawl of Enron's late chairman, Ken Lay. Explaining how Lay's accent reminded the Brits of George Bush and his disastrously gung-ho war on terror, my husband told me, "The theater-going classes in England regard Bush as a buffoon, and Lay comes from that same world of smug American good ol' boys."

In London, the show provided the perfect opportunity to scoff at the hubris and arrogance of the U.S. But transplanted to New York, American audiences were not amused. After seeing Enron, one aggrieved audience member wrote on the theater review site talkinbroadway.com, "How dare we not kneel at the altar of dumb Texan stereotypes, fat rats and gratuitous sex on desks." American viewers were just plain offended.

From a £50 ($75) seat in London's Noel Coward theater, broad American accents and over-the-top singing and dancing numbers seem edgy and amusingly stereotypical. There's an entertaining air of exoticism, completely lost on an American audience.

RBS -- The Musical?

Consider the reaction if the situation were reversed: How many British theater-goers would shell out a small fortune for tickets to see an American musical about the rise and fall of the Royal Bank of Scotland, centered on former CEO Sir Fred Goodwin -- a hapless executive the British press now derides as "the world's worst banker." As the story unfolds, Sir Fred brings the venerable, nearly 300-year-old bank to the brink of collapse in Britain's biggest banking crisis in a century. Then, as his reward for a job disastrously done, he secures an annual pension of £650,000 ($1 million) while taxpayers are left holding the bag.

For Brits, there's no question that it'd be a tough sell: The last thing they want to see on the West End is a depressing account of their own financial disasters -- from the near-death experience of RBS to the implosion of Northern Rock. After all, it's much more fun to laugh at the mess that Enron and its ilk have made in America.

Enron's implosion is certainly a remarkable story -- but it's clearly not one that American audiences can bear to watch.

Originally published