The plot of an engaging play debuting on Broadway this week is ripped straight from the Wall Street Journal. In the opening scene, high-living finance types celebrate an accounting technique that promises to make their business a fortune. There are off-balance-sheets, conflicts of interest, credulous Wall Street analysts, a hands-off CEO, and a dorky, greasy-haired finance jockey who becomes a buff stud before crashing. When they’re not screwing each other, the venal, vain executives are screwing over shareholders.
The protagonist (played with flair and great energy by Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz) isn’t Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld or Bear Stearns CEO Jimmy Cayne. It’s Jeffrey Skilling, the now-jailed CEO of Enron. The play, Enron, sends up what was, until 2008, one of the greatest debacles in American financial history. The play’s talk of George W. Bush’s candidacy and deregulated electricity markets is definitely dated. But the human foibles it lays bare—the greed, arrogance, and hubris of financiers, the temptations of off-balance-sheet debt, the corruption of the business establishment, and the refusal to take responsibility—are very much au courant.
This show’s arrival on Broadway, nearly nine years after Enron’s implosion, raises a larger question. In our Law & Order, ripped-from-the-headlines times, why has the American entertainment machine been slow to turn the financial drama of 2008 into prime drama in 2010? There are projects in the works, to be sure. Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail, a chronicle of the demise of the system, was sold to HBO; Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, a tale of a few misfits who bet against the subprime-mortgage market and won, has been optioned by Brad Pitt and Paramount. But it could be years before either is made. As Lewis noted: “It’s hard to turn Wall Street into onscreen drama.”
It’s particularly tough to turn the recent crisis into good entertainment. Blogs, in-depth newspaper reports, CNBC’s wall-to-wall coverage, and several dozen nonfiction books have made the players into too-familiar characters. Also, the best and most enduring Wall Street entertainment hasn’t been post-crash autopsies, but ripping bubble-era tales. Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities started as a serial in Rolling Stone in 1984 and 1985, and came out as a book in 1987. Oliver Stone’s Wall Street was released in December 1987, just two months after the crash. It may be that artists need to wait a very long time before tackling the recent crisis. It’s easy to forget that It’s a Wonderful Life, a film that was essentially about the bank crisis of the early ‘30s, didn’t reach theaters until 1946. The old formula goes: comedy=tragedy + time. But as last week’s charges against Goldman Sachs show, this tragedy isn’t even over yet.
The most ambitious efforts so far to make dramatic lemonade out of the financial lemons have come from Britain. Enron started out in London, the brainchild of 29-year-old Lucy Prebble, creator of the British series Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Last fall the BBC aired a snappy, one-hour narrative, The Last Days of Lehman Brothers, with James Cromwell in the role of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. The Britishisms can be off-putting—characters refer to Lehman as “Lehmans,” and Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis, a Georgia native, has a drawl that sounds more Cornwall than Cobb County. While many of the scenes are true to life, there’s plenty of fantasy. At one point, Fuld and his assistant quote Revelation 18:3 to each other: “Because all the nations have drunk of the wine of the fury of her fornication … and the merchants of the earth have been enriched through the might of her luxury.” On the real Wall Street, the only time big shots use the Lord’s name, it’s to take it in vain.
Unfortunately, the latest financial inferno has yet to produce villains who can hold our attention for a couple of hours. At first blush, Bernard Madoff’s epic Ponzi scheme would seem to be fodder for at least a television series. But the Madoff who emerged from his brief confession and several books is a banal, unrepentant liar who acted largely on his own. There are no depths of soul to plumb. The FX series Damages, in its third season, centers on the Madoff-esque Louis Tobin, but he confesses and is sentenced in the first episode of the season; by the third, he’s committed suicide. Ted Danson’s Arthur Frobisher, the coke-snorting, Enron-style villain of the first season, gets as much screen time as Tobin. It’s as if an old villain had to be revived in order to maintain the audience’s interest.
Hollywood is recycling lots of old villains as new, postcrisis heroes. The trailer for Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps shows Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko being released from jail in the present (but not without an empty money clip and his brick of a 1980s cell phone). Grizzled, shorn of status, and eager to repair severed family ties, Gekko is shocked to find that the greed he once celebrated now runs rampant and has become institutionalized. Nowadays he’s supposed to be one of the good guys.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleepsis one of the few big-budget pieces of crisis culture. But there’s some clever stuff done on the cheap. NPR’s This American Life in April aired a hilarious two-minute show tune, written by Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez, about a hedge fund’s bets against subprime mortgages, “Bet Against the American Dream.” And actors at Iceland’s Reykjavik City Theater recently began a dramatic reading of a 2,250-page report about the country’s financial crisis. If you think it’s tough to grasp this stuff in English, try it in Icelandic.
In these chastened, indie-budget times, why bother to invent new villains and story lines when old ones are essentially interchangeable? Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic, an engaging but not-too-ambitious novel about bank bailouts, is very much of the moment, even though Haslett said he wrote the first scenes in the wake of the Enron debacle.
Enron proves that you’ve got to add a lot of bells and whistles to enliven a story that is essentially about meetings and people pushing buttons on computers. There are dance routines, a musical number about commodity prices, a sketch involving light sabers, and plenty of other shtick: The board of directors is costumed as three blind mice, and actors with dinosaur heads eat debt fed to them by Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow. In a closing scene, Skilling is confronted by employees at a funeral. He’s disgraced, alone, uncomprehending—and yet we don’t feel for him. There’s only so much lipstick you can put on a greedy pig.