Enron, British playwright Lucy Prebble’s account of the rise and fall of the energy corporation, was a hit when it opened on London’s West End in 2009 and a flop on Broadway in 2010. Where larger companies may have been too risk-adverse to tell this story, it has been left to a small company like 4615 Theatre to finally present its D.C. premiere.
Ken Lay (Nick Torres) founded Enron in 1985 through the merger of two natural gas pipeline companies. A Baptist preacher’s son whose religiosity Prebble precisely captures, he is also a corporate libertarian who believes the nation-state will be and should be eclipsed by the corporation. He’s keen to proselytize the gospel of deregulation to politicians of both parties. Early on, he pitts his two proteges, Jeff Skilling (Andrew Scott Zimmer) and Claudia Roe (Amanda Forstrom), against one another to succeed him as CEO while he moves on to serve as chairman of the board. Roe is enough of a traditionalist to believe that energy companies should actually produce energy, but Skilling thinks outside the box and gets the promotion.
In Prebble’s telling, Skilling’s ascent is built on two big ideas: The first is to introduce mark-to-market accounting to the energy industry, which allowed estimated future profits from a recently signed contract to be declared as profits the moment the deal was made; the second was to make Enron an energy trading company. Instead of building new infrastructure and producing more energy, Enron would be in the business of buying energy from the producers and reselling it for a profit. Unsurprisingly for a writer who now works on the HBO series Succession, Prebble particularly relishes dramatizing the byzantine complexity of financial crimes as well as the personal corruption of the malefactors.
Skilling’s scheme has one major problem: Enron’s assets do not match its reported profits, creating questions from financial analysts and shareholders. Skilling’s hand-picked chief financial officer, Andy Fastow (Charlie Cook), has an ingenious solution: nested shell companies that absorb Enron’s debts, while remaining almost completely owned by Enron and under Fastow’s control. In 2000 and 2001, Enron traders would engineer rolling blackouts in the newly deregulated California energy market, allowing them to jack up prices and literally make a killing as both hospitals and traffic lights were left without power. Meanwhile Skilling could dream up new ideas like trading futures in broadband and streaming video even though the technology did not yet exist.
In the end, shareholders sued, and Enron would file for bankruptcy, bringing down other financial institutions. Lay, Skilling, and Fastow would be convicted on multiple counts of fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy. Tens of thousands of Enron employees would lose everything as their stock options became worthless.
Because Skilling and Lay still embody a heroic archetype for some Americans, Prebble consciously worked in a mock epic mode, using a style that freely melded naturalistic drama with the symbolic. Fastow named his shell companies “raptors” after the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, so necktie-wearing velociraptors stalk the boards feasting on the debt of failed projects. Director Jordan Friend and 4615’s 13-member ensemble embrace this aesthetic with aplomb. Zimmer, doing double duty as the multimedia designer, has created video clips that intersperse archival footage with garishly colored infographics and tickers that evoke the worst in 1990s graphic design. The defunct holding company Arthur Andersen LLP is portrayed as a vaudeville ventriloquist (Joshua Simon). Costume designer Benjamin Weigel clothes the cast in corporate conformity but his real coup are the heads of the raptors: Printouts of the corporate emails that California investigators released to the public domain have been cut into polygons that recall 1990s 3-D video games and assembled into frightful shapes. Intimacy and fright director Jonathan Ezra Rubin makes manifest the aggressively toxic culture at Enron, but his greatest accomplishment is turning Cook’s awkwardly chipper Fastow into an axe-wielding vanquisher of allegorical dinosaurs.
What allowed Enron to inflict so much economic damage was its proximity to political power. Imagine a worthy sequel to Enron in which a similarly rapacious corporate leadership actually held political power.
To Sept. 1 at 4618 14th St. NW $16.50–$20. 4615theatre.org.