Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Enron Aftermath

Critics are jumping over each other to prove themselves the smartest guys in the room when teasing out the Broadway failure of the West End hit Enron. The show shuttered over the weekend after failing to capture a Tony Nomination for Best Play.

To get a feel for the show's critical reception, you may want to start at Isaac Butler's Stagegrade, where you can see links to all of the reviews of the show - Rotten Tomatoes style. What you'll notice is that Ben Brantley of the New York Times seemed to be, pretty much, the most underwhelmed of all the reviewers. (Although Terry Teachout might have hated it more.) This is the starting point for most of the postmortems.

U.K. Guardian critic Michael Billington, a big supporter of the show in its London premiere, hauled off on Brantley and showed a barely concealed contempt for New York theatre in general:

One reason for the attacks is the entrenched American view that visual pyrotechnics and razzle-dazzle are the province of the musical. Plays, on the other hand, are judged by their fidelity to what a critic once called "the visible and audible surfaces of everyday life". It's permissible for Wicked or –Legally Blonde to deploy expressionist –techniques but, on Broadway at least, plays are expected to conform to the realist rules.


I've long said the beating heart of US theatre is in Chicago, from which two terrific new plays, Tracy Letts's August: Osage County and Lynn Nottage's Ruined, recently emerged. In fact, next time an ambitious producer thinks of taking a London hit-play to Broadway, I'd suggest they ask the question that used to adorn posters in wartime: is your journey really necessary?

Isaac Butler responds to Billington:

These bad-faith arguments are also easily reversed. I could simply reply to Billington's claims that American's don't know how to process non-musical spectacle with saying that Brits are too easily wowed by it, and allow assertive directorial hands to woo them, causing them to ignore the total lack of substance or structural rigor in work put on by, say, Shunt, or the fact that Black Watch is just an over-long catalogue of macho pro-war movie cliches with dance sequences that gives its audience a hand job of empathic self-congratulation at the end.

David Cote of TimeOut New York, a fan of the Broadway Enron, agrees with Billington and Butler that the "first cause" of the closing is Ben Brantley's review, but then goes on:

Second cause is easy: No one wants to pay top dollar for a depressing docudrama (however decked out in multimedia flash) about how our economy is built on lies and illusion. Third cause: No stars. Imagine if Sean Hayes and James Spader were headlining Enron; it would pack more box-office clout (and maybe Brantley would have liked it more). Fourth: Creepy pseudo-religious marketing made Enron look less like a play and more like a Scientology recruitment event (which is apt, but it doesn’t sell tickets).

Lastly, Jason Zinoman, writing in Vanity Fair, holds that the play is the thing, as in, Lucy Prebble, the playwright, tried to play it too safe:

The answer reveals much about the relationship between the English and American theater scenes. Americans have a certain inferiority complex about British drama. If you want to get a meaty, challenging play produced on Broadway, put it up on London’s West End first. But we also have certain expectations of these imports, namely that they be serious, smart, and cerebral. Enron seemed perfect, since it dealt with dense subject matter and thorny ethical issues. But instead of embracing complexity, Prebble and her director, Rupert Goold, tried to put on a big show, with music and spectacle and giant video screens. In the context of Broadway, this might have actually been a bigger risk than a sober drama, because when it comes to showmanship, Americans think they know a thing or two. You Brits talk nice, but leave the jazz hands to us.

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