The Art of Greed: Enron’s Stephen Kunken
By Ellis Nassour
The acclaimed London production of Lucy Prebble’s Enron, a docudrama using song, movement, projections, and raptor costumes, tells the story of the collapse of the once fabled energy giant in a most unconventional way.
While still running on the West End, the play opened here with an American cast: Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz, Tony nom Gregory Itzin [The Kentucky Cycle; President Logan, TV’s 24, The Mentalist], Stephen Kunken [Our Town, Rock ‘n Roll, Frost/Nixon, Festen] and Tony/Olivier nom Marin Mazzie [Kiss Me Kate, Ragtime, Passion] play wrongdoers at the top of the Enron foodchain. Rupert Goold [Macbeth, starring Patrick Stewart], whose Headlong Theatre commissioned the work, continues as director.
Kunken portrays Andy Fastow, Enron’s chief financial officer who charts a slide into near dementia, albeit with ingenuity. As the company swallows up smaller companies and becomes to go-to stock for investors, Fastow is the one who finds the "sure-fire" way out of the depths of debt.
"Some have found it strange that an English writer decided to take on Enron’s epic rise and equally epic fall," related Kunken, at Sardi’s in a break from rehearsals across the street at the Broadhurst. "Lucy really did her research. What impressed all of us, as was my experience inFrost/Nixon [where he played Jim Reston], was that like [playwright] Peter Morgan and [director] Michael Grandage, Lucy and [director] Rupert [Goold] really invested in the American cast. They didn’t just take us for granted."
Since the play is about such a famous American scandal, he says Prebble and Goold were interested in cast members’ take far beyond the British sensibilities, especially regarding the language and if it had punch to it.
"We were not only quite open," he laughs. "It was a matter of try and stop us. Sometimes we would discuss something as simple as sentence structure, the rhythm of a bit of dialogue, or a British spin of an Americanism."
Regarding the latter, he, Butz, Itzin, and Mazzie gave input on our colloquial way of saying things. "They listened to our feedback," Kunken points out, "and tweaked some things."
He releates that the Brits didn’t necessarily know the U.S. part of the story; and Americans didn’t know the U.K. part. "On each side, there was much new information to be revealed."
Enron couldn’t have opened on Bway at a more apt time. Americans are fed up with all manner of financial world shenanagians and if the headlines aren’t screaming about Madeoff and the allegedly dirty doings at Lehman Brothers, it’s Goldman Sachs.
Kunken notes that he plays "the good guy who becomes the bad guy. Andy got away with what he was doing for much too long. Interestingly, he may be out of prison next year. So much of investing is built on faith – the company’s track record, who’s running the comapny. Enron and so many businesses create this idea of groupthink. The bubble is built around spin, but when the bubble bursts, all the spin goes away. It was all perception."
Enron’s amazing growth was in the end built on spin. Investors across the board had faith in the company, beleived what Lay was saying. Those who believed, worked there, and invested got really stung and literally lost everything.
Fastow did turn out to be less of a bad guy than the others, explains Kunken. "Some of the money people got back was because Andy, to save his skin, cut a plea bargain and gave back a lot of the $45-million he stashed making those wild deals."
He went on to say, "The Enron fiasco was sort of the first drip in the bucket, but everyday we’re reading stories that have that bucket overflowing. There were so many lessons on greed in what was exposed at Enron, but no one seems to be learning from them.
"A lot of the financially-creative things Lucy has Andy doing," he continus, "such as his innovative way of creating numbers, often from thin air, are still being done. It goes on and on and on."
However, the real Fastow, Jeffrey Skilling [the Enron CEO convicted of 19 counts of fraud, conspiracy and insider trading], Kenneth Lay [Enron’s ultra-religious chairman and original CEO], and Rebecca Mark, head of Enron’s International division [the one top tier executive who wasn’t indicted in the scandal; so in Enron, mainly because of certain liberties Prebble took, she’s fictitiously-named Claudia Roe and played by Mazzie] didn’t have what Tessie Tura, Mazeppa, and Electra so eloquently sung of in Gypsy: a gimmick.
Fastow/Kunken’s is a whopper: vicious, red-eyed, miniature dinosaur-like creatures called raptors, who devour, at least in company ledgers,.Enron’s ever-mounting debt through shell companies.
Ben Brantely, in the NYTimes, wrote, "Come to think of it, it’s Fastow’s relationship with the raptors, not Skilling, that is the show’s most fascinating. The vision of Fastow — a necktie wrapped around his head — and his raptors in his inner sanctum, just before Enron goes boom, brings to mind a war-warped, jungle-fevered character out of Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter. It’s a hilarious, scary image and … suggests the real heart of darkness meant to be beating at its center."
Kunken said that as an actor, "being in Frost/Nixon, working with Peter and sitting between Frank [Langella] and Michael [Sheen] as they bounced their energy around was akin to a master class. It’s that way again with Norbert and Rupert."
What’s most interesting about Enron, he explains, "is that even though a majority of our audiences know all the ins and outs of what happened at Enron, perhaps because they were heavily invested and lost everything, Lucy’s play still has a lot of thriller elements. You know the ultimate outcome, yet it’s still edge-of-the-seat entertainment.
After auditioning for Goold, Kunken didn’t know how long the process of a Bway transfer would take. "I was fortunate to have stepped into the Off Bway revival of Our Town [directed by David Cromer], which I loved. It was a fantastic company to work with, a kinder, gentler world than the one I’m in now
The Art of Greed:
Enron’s Playwright Lucy Prebble
By: Ellis Nassour
Playwright Prebble, about to turn 30, says she didn’t want to write a conventional docudrama about how tangled finances, superegos, and greed brought down an American energy giant. "I collaborated with Rupert [Goold, an associate director at the Royal Shakespeare as well as Headlong’s A.D.] to shape a hyper-theatrical event."
The idea was not to proceed gently down the garden path. Goold took off running, with songs, dance, multimedia, surreal images and stylized action [for instance, homages to Jurassic Parkand countless dinosaur flicks and Star Wars] and wrapped them around the dark, dank, often menancing subterranean world of Enron’s downfall.
Prebble, now famous as the adaptor of Secret Diary of a Call Girl from a London escort’s book of blog postings, grew up in Surrey. Her brother and sister are management consultants, her father works for a software company, and her mother is a state school teacher.
So where did her spin on Enron come from? "The workplace, where most of us spend most of their lives, is quite under-represented in theater," she says, "so it was a road-not-taken. I often think what would have happened if I’d entered that world since I’ve always found it hard to reconcile the idea of social responsibility with corporate, libertarian perspectives."
She surrounded herself with endless research about Enron and energy companies and contacted many of the people involved, "but not the principal players because some are in prison and one [Kenneth Lay] is dead. I decided there’s no point in writing a drama where you condemn everybody and say, ‘Isn’t making money bad.’ The delusion that goes on in all of us is what makes it fascinating."
The one rule she kept in mind was Do No Bore. "Financial trading floors are actually the most theatrical places. Though Enron is about numbers and economics, I thought, ‘Let’s do it with lots of swearing, hypermasculinity, motorbikes and lightsabers."