Is Greed Still Good? Long Wharf’s “Other People’s Money” Explores Corporate Raiders

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Jordon Lage and Liv Rooth. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 Other People’s Money by Jerry Sterner now at Long Wharf Theatre through December 18, is a play that has always been schizophrenic. Does it want to be a romantic comedy with a bit of cynicism thrown in OR does it want to be a hard-hitting play about our current economic/business environment?

It tries to have it all, but doesn’t quite succeed, not even in this excellent production directed by Marc Bruni.The play was written in the late 1980s and had its first major production at Hartford Stage, later it had a successful run off-Broadway and was made into a film.

Other People’s Money is about corporate raiders, small town values and the economic costs to our country of greed. When it was written by Sterner (who was in finance/Wall Street), theater and film goers were seeing Wall Street where George Gecko proclaimed the virtue of greed, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross showed the cut-throat world of the boiler room salesman, and people were reading Tom Wolfe’s novel, Bonfires of the Vanities.

The play is about a wire and cable factory in a small Rhode Island town. The family run business – led by Jorgey as its chairman – has been in business for years serving as the leader of the local economy. Times have been tough yet the company has hung on though not really making money.  One day, the president of the company, Coles, notes that the stock has had unusually high trading volumes and the price is climbing. He is instantly suspicious though Jorgey just thinks it is because people are recognizing its value.

Soon the corporate raider/takeover specialist, Garfinkle is arriving to point out that the company’s assets and subsidiary businesses are worth millions. As weeks go by Garfinkle continues to buy up stock and soon owns a substantial percentage.

Coles and the audience soon realize what Garfinkle’s plan will be: gain enough stock to convince others to cede control to him; he will sell off assets, possibly keep the profitable parts and shut down the plant.

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Karen Ziemba, Edward James Hyland, Jordan Lage. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

But Jorgey is an old-fashioned business man, a pillar in the community, who cannot recognize what is happening. When he finally listens to advice, he will not do what needs to be done to protect his company and workers.

His longtime assistant, Bea (who is also the love of his life though they both were married to others) convinces her daughter, Kate to help out. She’s a high powered lawyer who works in merger and acquisitions. Battling Garfinkle is something she jumps at but is frustrated by Jorgey’s reluctance to take action.

Lots of corporate financial terms get bounced around – golden parachutes, poison pills and more. Also there is a lot of sexual talk. Garfinkle’s conversation is crass and vulgar to the extreme and Kate isn’t above using her looks and the same in return.

Yes, a plan is developed to try to save the company but I won’t spoil the ending.

Bruni has directed a fine cast. The play is narrated in part by the company president Coles played by Steve Routman. Should we be shocked that some point he is willing to sell out in order to look after his own goals?  In fact, most of the characters are less than heroic, with the possible exception of Bea, Kate’s mother and Jorgey’s assistant who will do whatever she can for the man she loves.

But while Kate tries to save the company, she too has one eye on the prize of what defeating Garfinkle would do for her career. Even Jorgey is not a totally heroic figure; his unwillingness to understand the current economic/corporate world leads to his problems.

Lee Savage has created a fine two-tiered set with Garfinkle’s shiny modern office in the back and the more homespun factory office in front. Even the paint is peeling. Anita Yavich has also delineated the differences between these two worlds in the costumes for Kate and Garfinkle – NYC polished but provocative—and Coles, Bea and Jorgey – more middle class conservative.

The cast is fine. Steve Routman’s Coles seems all professional and honest yet we early are on are shown his self-interest;  at least initially you feel sympathetic for him. Edwards James Hyland gives us a Jorgey (everyone calls him that though his name is Jorgenson) is the downhome business man straight out of a Sinclair Lewis novel. He’s stubborn, honest and has bought him to the conventional values.  Karen Ziemba’s Bea is the motherly type. Her scenes with Kate have a harder edge and you really want to know more of the backstory between Bea, her husband and Jorgey.

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Steve  Routman. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Liv Rooth gives us a Kate who is ambitious and realistic. She is the stereotyped Wall Street lawyer. Rooth’s Kate seems to enjoy the game with Garfinkle, but accepts the outcome too earily.

As Garfinkle, Jordan Lage is all greed and testosterone. He truly could be called “the snake.”

The problem with Other People’s Money isn’t the cast or the directing; it is that you leave the theater not depressed that nothing has changed but feeling slightly dirty from the humor and the ideas.

Other People’s Money is at Long Wharf Theatre through Dec. 18. For tickets, contact Long Wharf

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Jordan Lagee, Edward James Hyland, Steve Routman. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

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