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Business@Large – What Killed Enron? (The Play, Not The Company…)

Recently, the play “Enron” crashed and burned on Broadway despite being wildly popular in London. Is that a reflection on the American audience or on the production itself?

On May 9, less than two weeks into its Broadway run, “Enron,” pitched as a “political satire mixed with modern morality” closed, and like the ironic/iconic company it skewered, brought financial disaster to its investors.  They lost $4 million faster than you can say Bernie Madoff.  So, once again art imitates life, but what can we conclude about Enron’s premature demise? 

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The play received rave reviews in London and they have just extended its run.  It had fine actors playing Messrs Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and “Fast Andy” Fastow, the Enron execs who created shock and awe in the headlines just a few years ago.  It had glitz and metaphors galore (how about four debt-eating dinosaurs?) and dialogue and context designed to be snarky, clever, smart, cynical.   You know, like the “real” Enron was.  All the ingredients, one would think, of a Gordon Gecko redux, not so much a joyride as a train wreck from which we cannot turn away.  

Yet, this surrealistic and sordid telling of the Enron tale crashed and burned on this side of the Atlantic.  Why?  Are we Americans simply wanting to turn the page on that ugly lesson in business leadership failure?  Or is Enron just yesterday’s news driven off the Gotham front pages by the hey-I-know-somebody-who-works-there drama of Goldman Sachs and the adventures of the unsuspecting CDO counterparties?   After all, the Enron story has already been in the movies (“The smartest guys in the room”) and in several books.  Or perhaps it was just a lousy piece of theater that deserved its self-inflicted fate, popular in the UK more because of voyeuristic schadenfreude than staging excellence.
 
The bloggers, commentators and reviewers are unanimously un-unanimous in explaining why this dog couldn’t hunt.  And I didn’t get to New York to see the production, so like an episode of Columbo, it requires some piecing together of clues and tainted evidence to understand why there was a premature burial for this musical-of-sorts play that had created so much pre-opening buzz in New York.  One explanation was that there was an insensitive 9/11 segment in it which was hugely offputting to the NY crowd.  Another account was that the NY Times’ highly influential theater critic Ben Brantly wrote a less than enthusiastic review which choked off ticket sales.  Other commentators suggested that the premise and accompanying dialogue were too over the top cynical and that the audience was pounded again and again with the anything-but-subtle message of greed and the failure not just of individual moral compasses but of the markets and indeed of capitalism itself.  Rather than inviting reflection from the audience, as in a “Waiting for Godot,” the play apparently invited repulsion from some in the audience. 

That last explanation makes sense for this observer.  Ticket prices were on the higher end for “Enron” (even for pricey Broadway) meaning that at least a good portion of the target audience needed to be well heeled New Yorkers and/or Wall Street-types, not exactly the crowd that would embrace this screed about greed. And this was not the kind of play that would attract the out-of-town visitors crowd who would more likely want to see “Jersey Boys” or “Wicked.”  So like in real life economics, when you have more supply than you have demand, something has to give.  And it did.  And it died.   

However, the script has been sold to Hollywood so perhaps there’s a chance that we’ll be able to see the cinema version in 3-D one of these days.  And if any readers of this column saw the show, please weigh in with your point of view.

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Mike Hoban is a senior consultant for a global talent management consulting firm
and can be contacted at business-at-large@sbcglobal.net