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Enron -- Theater Review

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From its opening moments -- when three giant blind mice make their way onstage tapping their canes -- it's clear that Lucy Prebble's "Enron" is not going to be a standard theatrical docudrama. This scathing depiction of one of history's most egregious examples of corporate malfeasance whips out every theatrical trick in the book to get its points across. But for all its undeniable inventiveness, the play is curiously uninvolving.

It's not hard to see why the show, which originated at England's Chichester Festival, is a hit on London's West End; the Brits, after all, love to skewer our sensibilities. But the prospects for a lengthy Broadway run seem much more dicey, as American audiences might be not quite as eager to shell out top dollars to watch 2 1/2 hours of esoteric corporate intrigue.

Playwright Prebble and director Rupert Goold attempt to walk a fine line in the production, which is alternately naturalistic and highly stylized in its depiction of the rise and fall of the mammoth energy company that engaged in accounting fraud on an unprecedented level.

The problem is that neither of their approaches is fully successful. The realistic dialogue scenes revolving around the charged interactions among real-life figures -- including Enron chairman Kenneth Lay (Gregory Itzin), here depicted as a figurehead more interested in wallpaper patterns than what's going on with the company; COO Jeffrey Skilling (Norbert Leo Butz), who thought that the energy company could succeed on Wall Street while barely producing any energy; and CFO Andy Fastow (Stephen Kunzen), who devised endlessly duplicitous means of covering up the company's financial losses -- are more crude than enlightening, as evidenced by the cliched scene early on in which Skilling is seen coupling with a blond bombshell executive (Marin Mazzie) on her desk.

In an effort to make the complicated business double talk more accessible, the evening features much elaborate theatricality. The traders break into stylized song-and-dance routines, the Arthur Andersen accounting firm is shown as a ventriloquist and his dummy, Lehman Brothers is depicted as a pair of jive-talking Siamese twins, the segment dealing with the rolling blackouts in California features dueling light sabers, etc. And the "raptors," Fastow's term for the elaborate constructs he devised to hide the company's mounting debts, are the ravenous dinosaurs made famous in "Jurassic Park."

But for all its imaginative conceits, "Enron" is more intellectually than emotionally engaging. The characters rarely rise above the level of caricature and, with rare exceptions -- like the shattering moment at Lay's funeral when a financially devastated former employee angrily confronts an unrepentant Skilling -- the play fails to provide a human element to its complicated narrative.

Featuring generous use of video screens and other modernistic devices, the production is impressive on a technical level. And the performances, particularly Butz's manically energized turn as Skilling, are impeccable.

It's regrettable to have point out the flaws in one of the rare plays on Broadway that deals with serious issues. But it's hard not to escape the feeling that, much like the ill-fated company it depicts, too much of "Enron" is smoke and mirrors.

Venue: Broadhurst Theatre, New York (Runs indefinitely)
Cast: Norbert Leo Butz, Gregory Itzin, Marin Mazzie, Stephen Kunken
Production: Headlong Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre, Royal Court Theatre
Playwright: Lucy Prebble
Director: Rupert Goold
Set and costume designer: Anthony Ward
Lighting designer: Mark Henderson
Composition and sound designer: Adam Cork
Video and projection designer: Jon Driscoll
Choreographer: Scott Ambler