The Failure of Enron (the Play)

Reading the Sunday ProJo, I noticed the weird picture of a normal looking business-type guy smiling alongside a couple others dressed in suits, but with dinosaur heads. The picture accompanied a piece explaining how the London theatre crowd was aghast that American audiences just didn’t get the London hit play Enron. Basically, according to the article, cultured Brits thought us ugly Americans were to stupid and unsophisticated to get the humor.

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.”

For his part, the author of the piece, Jeremy Gerard, thinks the play’s promoters marketed it wrong–it was less a story about Enron and more about the workings of capitalism and markets in general. But the failure of Enron in New York is less surprising when it is learned that there is an intense, 6 minute segment devoted to 9/11 in the middle of it all–a section that had been unremarked upon in the reviews. As Nicole Gelinas explains:

The play’s instant 9/11 simulation is like a sucker punch for which New York theatergoers had no fair warning. Oddly, none of the critics I’ve read mentioned the scene, though Brantley devoted a strange passage to “the design team keep[ing] the stage pulsing with flashing colors [and] rainstorms of sparks (and later, ashes).”
Even today, video replays of 9/11 can induce a physical reaction in New Yorkers. On the night that I attended the play, in previews, two people seated in the rows ahead of me left during the scene. Many viewers likely paid little attention to the final scenes of the play.
If Goold did not notice his audience’s visceral response to the previews, he’s an incompetent director. During the play’s first half, the audience and the actors interacted easily. Theatergoers were generous with their laughter, applause, and attention, and they were patient with the story. At intermission, the audience chatted comfortably. But shortly into the second act, along comes 9/11, and shocked audience members launched a quiet but seething strike. Funny scenes were met with frosty silence. At the end, the audience offered only tepid applause, though Butz’s performance, certainly, merited a standing ovation. The white-faced crowd headed silently for the exits.
It’s likely that Enron would still be running on Broadway if Goold had heard what his audience was trying to tell him. No New Yorker would subject his friends, relatives, or neighbors to this. Goold either didn’t get the message, or he chose not to compromise his creativity, such as it is. As a result, New Yorkers rejected Enron. And that, you might say, is how markets work.

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