I'm no numbers guy, and I'm oh so very far away from being a money guy, too. But as explained by British playwright Lucy Prebble in her 2009 dark comedy Enron, the financial maneuvers that led to the biggest bankruptcy in American history aren't all that hard to understand.
In the early 1990s Enron energy corporation CEO Jeffrey Skilling introduced a sly accounting gimmick called mark-to-market that allowed him to claim profits he didn't yet have in hand. When those profits didn't materialize down the line, Skilling and his CFO, Northwestern University MBA Andrew Fastow, hid the losses with further gimmickry involving shadow companies. As the losses continued to accumulate the gimmickry got more desperate and dysfunctional. Reporters started getting suspicious, investors lost confidence, and in 2001 the whole thing just naturally went kerflooey. Quod erat demonstrandum.
What's a little harder to understand is why the Enron brain trust didn't see what they were letting themselves—and loads of innocent victims—in for when they first decided to finesse the difference between real and conceptual money. After all, these were the notorious "smartest guys in the room," and the potential for disaster should've been fairly obvious to anyone with a gram of foresight. But there, too, the answer is implicit in the question: Skilling, Fastow, and the rest ignored the downside because their enormous self-regard didn't admit the possibility of a situation they couldn't handle. They were lords of the spreadsheet, too brilliant and agile to fail.
And in the short run, they were getting rich.
Skilling, in particular, appears to have been a picture-in-the-dictionary example of the pride that goeth before a fall. It's said he told a Harvard Business School interviewer that he (Skilling, not the interviewer) was "fucking smart," and in Bret Tuomi's engagingly icky performance he comes across as a vulgar, egotistical pudge a la Newt Gingrich, with a sadistic streak and a Silicon Valley-esque sense of superiority.
In fact, one of the interesting things about Skilling as presented here is the extent to which his rhetoric mirrors that of tech gurus past and present as he discusses turning Enron into a "powerhouse for ideas," building a corporate culture that unleashes creativity, and embracing a future where Enron does all its business in the cybersphere, never dirtying its virtual hands with a real product like oil or gas.
Fastow is seen as more of an ain't-it-cool nerd, besotted in a thoroughly adolescent way by the magical power of his business-school abstractions. He says things like, "All money is debt—it's just how you present it," and calls his loss-eating dummy corporations "raptors" in homage to Jurassic Park.
A great set piece in the play has Sean Fortunato's Fastow explaining to Skilling that it's no big thing to evade conflict of interest laws: a raptor can be considered independent of Enron if only 3 percent of its financial DNA comes from outside sources. And that debtivore can in turn house a smaller entity that's only 3 percent non-Enron. And you can put an even smaller 3 percenter inside that—and so on down the line until you've got a tiny Russian doll of a shell company that fits inside all the others and reduces your exposure to a measly few million out of Enron's peak valuation of $60 billion. The concept is so cool and Fastow and Skilling's delight in it so infectious that an audience member might easily get a guilty contact high. Yes, it is cool. More than anything else in Enron, such moments communicate the insular madness that transformed these men into criminals and make us realize how easily it can happen to some other conscience-free hotshot—at, say, Goldman Sachs or Bear Stearns or Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC.
Rachel Rockwell's production for TimeLine Theatre is brisk and razor sharp—part vivisection, part burlesque. The raptors are played by actors wearing dinosaur heads, and the Enron board is represented by three blind mice in nice suits. Best of all, though, is the minor tour de force carried off by Christopher Allen and Benjamin Sprunger as a two-headed Lehman Brothers exec, speaking the same oily lines in uncannily perfect sync.