May 11 (Bloomberg) -- British critics have been set atwitter that the abundantly laureled stage satire “Enron” expired on Broadway Sunday night after barely three weeks, losing its entire $3.6 million capitalization.
In London, the show has been a runaway hit since opening last January in the West End after a sold-out run at the Royal Court. Here in New York, “Enron” didn’t receive a single major Tony nomination other than best score -- and it’s not even a musical!
“Since 9/11 the insular Americans have become terribly sensitive to criticism,” Jerry de Groot wrote in the Telegraph. “They don’t mind when Jon Stewart dumps bucketloads of heavy-handed political satire on the ‘Daily Show,’ but they get tetchy when the criticism is delivered with an English accent.”
Michael Billington, the critic of the U.K.’s Guardian, suggested Americans were just too stupid to appreciate a satire requiring a sense of history and a modest understanding of accounting legerdemain.
“If ‘Enron’s’ melancholy saga proves anything,” Billington wrote, “it is Broadway’s irrelevance to serious theatre.”
He added this: “At heart, Broadway is a big, gaudy commercial shop-window, where fortunes are won and lost.” Stop the presses!
Still, the abrupt closing shocked me, too. “Enron” isn’t a great play. But a big, gaudy commercial entertainment? It’s that in spades.
Rupert Goold’s production of Lucy Prebble’s broad-stroke comic strip was as gimcrack as any American idiot could want. It had four whimsical LED-eyed Velocirapting humanoids devouring debt. And hot office sex, starring doughy nerd turned master of his universe Jeffrey Skilling and his in-house competitor Claudia Roe, while the flashing stock price raced around them.
Not since Faye Dunaway moaned ratings numbers during a sex scene in “Network” have lust and power been so entertainingly entangled.
I called the show’s lead producer, Jeffrey Richards, whom I’ve known since his first Broadway flop, “Rex,” in 1976. For someone lighter by almost $4 million, he was pretty chipper.
“Look, I believe the straight play can be viable on Broadway,” Richards, 61, said. He’s had a number of hits recently, including David Mamet’s “Race,” which, unlike “Enron,” survived mostly tepid reviews this season, recovering its investment.
When I asked what went wrong with “Enron,” Richards blamed Goldman Sachs.
“We opened with a sizable advance, but we ate into it during previews,” he said. “Then the Goldman Sachs hearings began. Suddenly we were competing with reality.”
This is something of a stretch, though fatigue with business malfeasance may indeed be one reason the show didn’t catch on.
Richards also said that the play lacked a “wow factor.” People weren’t leaving the Broadhurst Theatre bristling with the need to tell anyone who would listen, “You must see this show.”
I have a different theory, one more typically applied to musicals: Don’t confuse your audience. Tell them what to expect and then give it to them. They’ll leave happy.
This is famously what happened when Stephen Sondheim added “Comedy Tonight” to the beginning of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” It let even the dumbest folks in on the joke, telling them that they were supposed to laugh.
It’s also what happened more recently, when composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa rewrote the opening of “The Addams Family,” turning a show critics hated into one that audiences can’t get enough of (and the critics still hated).
“Who do you think is gonna win in the end, the greedy or the inept?” Norbert Leo Butz’s Skilling asked, after a delicious screed about the inevitable showdown between capitalists and bureaucrats. “We’re not perfect, but wait til you see the other guys.”
That prompted a collective gasp -- and nervous titters -- the night I saw the show. No one needed to tell these theatergoers about the parallels between Enron 2001 and Goldman Sachs 2010. Such bitter pith merely studded the cartoony script.
Richards and his marketing team made a fatal mistake in selling “Enron” as the story of Enron. I’d have put Skilling in Devil’s p.j.s, with the Enron “E” as his pitchfork. Bring in a carny barker hawking its Side Show wares. See the Scaly Raptors! The Two-Faced Man! The Disappearing Cash!
Then, perhaps, the New York Times’s Ben Brantley might have approached the show in a lighter mood, instead of treating it like a kvetch, an annoying pain he had to endure. He called it “a flashy but labored economics lesson...” Well, maybe for him. But anyway, that rang the death knell.
Ever the diplomat, Richards was having none of it.
“It is not fair to blame the New York Times for the failure of the show. There are plays that make it without the Times.”
Not this one. “Enron” promised a memory we’d rather forget, instead of a thrill ride most of us could really use just now.
(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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