Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY at the Long Wharf Theatre
Through December 18th
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way… — From A Tale Of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
The above quote could easily be applied to the 1980s. That decade holds a special place in my heart. I was a freshly minted attorney making relatively decent money for the first time in my life. It was before business casual, when you still had to wear suits to work. Blue and gray were the only colors allowed at my firm. Any other colors or polyester blends were reserved for venetian blind salesman – insider lawyer lingo for “ambulance chasers.” It was the era of Reaganomics. It seemed like everybody had money, everybody had an LLP (limited liability partnerships were popular before limited liability companies or LLCs), and everybody had a private placement memorandum to try and raise other people’s money (OPM) for a project. The “Greed is Good” speech by Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in the 1987 film Wall Street was the new American anthem. OPM was more than a saying back then, it was a religion.
Having the pleasure to see Jerry Sterner’s play Other People’s Money at the Long Wharf Theatre, I felt an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. I was back in the eighties in my Brooks Brothers suit with power shirt and tie discussing leveraged buyouts and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings. Robber baron and corporate raider Garfinkle, also known as “Larry the Liquidator,” has set his sights on the debt-free New England Wire and Cable Company run by Jorgenson, the founder’s son, who is two years from retirement. At that time, there is an agreement that the company’s president, Coles, will run it. With respect to Garfinkle, think Richard Gere’s character in Pretty Woman – someone who buys out companies and then dismantles them because they are worth more in tax write-offs and parts than as an ongoing business. But Jorgenson doesn’t want to give up his family-run business even if it will make him a wealthy man. His faithful assistant, Bea, enlists in the aid of her savvy, sharp-witted, and sharp-toothed (like Jaws) daughter as the company’s attorney to try and fight Garfinkle’s tender offer. It comes down to a showdown between the two men who decide to leave the ultimate fate of the company to the shareholders. Will the shareholders stick by Jorgenson and keep the company alive or will they follow the somewhat sleazy but nevertheless charismatic Garfinkle and vote for dismantling which will give them a profitable return on their investment?
Without giving away the ending, suffice it to say, that there are no winners in the drama. Sterner has written a morality play in which all of the main characters’ values and morals are tested and it is ultimately left up to the audience as to which way the needle of our moral compass will swing. Although the SEC rules and the law of investments may have changed somewhat since the eighties (to prevent situations like Enron and the sins of the Ivan Boeskys of the world), people are still people with the same wants, needs, values, and desires as they have always had. And watching them navigate, manipulate, cajole, betray, and interact makes Other People’s Money stunningly relevant today – particularly with respect to today’s political climate – ‘nough said.
Veteran Broadway director Marc Bruni did an outstanding job staging this production and directing his extremely talented cast. He adroitly captured the nuances of the period – the time just before the world would be engulfed in coming tidal wave of PC technology and the new robber barons – Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. It’s easy to forget that when Other People’s Money premiered on Broadway, it was topical and a darling of the Wall Street crowd – but today it’s a period piece of extant theater.
Edward James Hyland is perfectly cast as the soft-spoken, old-fashioned, old school, and resistant-to-change boss and principal stockholder of his family-founded company. Gregory Peck played Jorgenson in the film version. Obviously, Mr. Hyland had big shoes to fill, and he filled them nicely indeed. He was able to bring a warmth and naïveté to the character – imagine thinking that loyalty would be more important to the general population than making a quick buck. Steve Routman also is perfectly cast as Coles, the manager and president of the company. Serving as a narrator of sorts as well as one of the principal characters, Mr. Routman makes us feel his angst and his longing for what he feels he deserves for his years of servitude under Jorgenson – a golden parachute at the very least. Karen Ziemba brings new meaning to the term minion in her excellent portrayal of Bea, Jorgenson’s long-term assistant (and possible lover). I never saw the 1991 film version, but it’s hard for me to imagine Carrie’s Piper Laurie as the selfless, self-sacrificing, self-effacing Bea. So it will be Ms. Ziemba’s performance which is my standard against which future Bea’s will be judged. Liv Rooth was spot-on with her portrayal of the ambitious, career-driven attorney, Kate. In fact, her performance was so on-the-money that I felt like I was seeing a ghost of some of the business-savvy, female lawyers I dealt with when I was practicing law in the eighties.
Finally, I must give a special shout-out to Jordan Lage whose performance as the corporate raider Garfinkle was, in a word, captivating and riveting (ok, that’s two words). Danny DeVito played Garfinkle (Garfield) in the film version and although I didn’t see it, I am certain that he was wonderful in the part. Although Mr. Lage did not have “big” shoes to fill because of Mr. DeVito’s diminutive stature, Mr. Lage simply killed it. He was a smarmy, narcissistic, misogynist – and yet somehow still remained charming and refreshingly honest. More than just a Gekko clone or caricature, Mr. Lage gave Larry the Liquidator a layered portrayal.
Other People’s Money is as relevant today as it was when it was first penned because it ultimately deals with the range of human emotions – which like the sun and the stars – is relatively constant and enduring. Call me a dinosaur, no better than Jorgenson, but I missed the days when you had to dress in a suit every day to go to work. I also miss the pot of OPM that was readily accessible back then. How times have changed!
Other People’s Money at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre. On the surface it’s a story about corporate greed over hometown values; out with the old and in with the new. But perhaps it is the bigger, broader brush strokes of morality and humanity that truly are at the crux of playwright Jerry Sterner’s multi-dimensional work. Pride, principles, and predator vs. prey are among other salient themes. One might ask, is it people over money or money over people? Or can those lines be blurred?
As a professor of psychology, one of the topics we often discuss in class is morality and moral development. Psychologists Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, and even the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, have been among the contributors to our scholarly understanding. The ultimate basis for morality, however, may be one’s “worldview” – or simply, what it means to each of us to be human; how we conduct ourselves in relationships with others; and how we address problems as they are presented before us. To that end, we may consider how our actions affect the self and only the self (and if they truly ever do), as well as the effect of our actions upon others (and therefore what our social responsibility may be). Cultural anthropologist Richard Shweder called these principles “ethics of autonomy” and “ethics of community,” respectively (in his tripartite theory there also are “ethics of divinity” but we’ll leave that one out for this discussion).
In Other People’s Money, Andrew “Jorgy” Jorgenson has a business to run; he’s the second-generation commander-in-chief, and chairman of a successful Rhode Island company, New England Wire and Cable (NEWC), built by his father. He’s kept it clean, clear, and debt-free, employed thousands, and holds his right hand man, president Bill Coles, by his side. The two capably keep the wheels turning in their small town (it’s one devoid of a Dunkin’ Donuts – it’s got to be a small town, right?) They and the business are traditional, dependable, and well-liked – they’ve served their people well and their focus is on the greater good and the community, or so it would seem.
Suddenly there’s a shark circling – in the form of one Lawrence “Larry the Liquidator” Garfinkle, a New York City corporate raider who is baring his teeth and ready to chew up and spit out NEWC for his own financial gain. He views NEWC as a sinking ship, yet sees himself as its savior – or at least one capable of humanely euthanizing the dying entity. He’s guided by his own set of principles, which on the surface appears to be primarily autonomous. Ultimately when Jorgy holds his ground against Garfinkle who finds he can’t commence with a nice, friendly buyout, the Liquidator initiates a hostile takeover.
Enter Kate, daughter of Jorgy’s secretary and main squeeze, Bea. Kate’s a small-town girl with high aspirations; now a fast-talking, Morgan Stanley attorney looking to make her mark. After initially butting heads with Mom and Jorgy, she ultimately helps them to craft their defense against the greedy Garfinkle. You’ll have to see it to learn how it all plays out (I don’t believe in spoilers).
Things in the play, as in life, aren’t always what they seem – and neither are the characters. This exceptionally well-cast company brings these multiple layers to their performances, under the adept guidance of director Marc Bruni, whose impressive resume includes Broadway and beyond. Edward James Hyland is terrific as nice guy Jorgy; who at the same time is stubborn and staid, incapable of looking accurately at the future of both the business and the changing times. It’s his business and it’s going to stay that way. The decisions he makes may, therefore, be more selfish than beneficent. Jordan Lage as the predatory and rapacious Garfinkle is brilliant; his character played with exceptional nuance and dimension – you’re never sure whether you love to hate him or hate to love him. And while his outer layers most certainly appear rough and scaly, he’s got the intellect and business acumen to recognize when something works and when it’s gone by. And he is, as Freud would have said, a seething mass of “id” – unbridled, impulsive, pleasure-seeking (and raunchy!).
Liv Rooth as Kate is phenomenal – whether she’s sparring with her mother, with Jorgy, or most intensely with Garfinkle (as she fences with him not just in the work arena, but also against his myriad sexual advances). She’s exceptionally authentic as the hot-shot, nearly-fully matured and lightly-seasoned shark herself. Steve Routman as Coles is great as the intense, nervous, brooding company president who fears he won’t get what’s coming to him after his years of loyal service. We see in Act 2 to whom in fact he is ultimately loyal. And when tensions between mother and daughter run high, we see, too, issues related to family loyalty splatter across the stage — Bea, played by Karen Ziemba is doting, patient, but with a strong constitution. She knows how to handle each of the characters, and is able to procure some fantastic fried dough rings as well!
Shout outs to Lee Savage for impressive and creative set design; I simply loved how Garfinkle’s office imposed and intruded itself upon the main stage NEWC; to Anita Yavich for costume design, David Lander for lighting design, Brian Ronan for sound design, Peter Wolf as production stage manager, Amy Patricia Stern as assistant stage manager, Calleri Casting for casting, and Jesca Prudencio as assistant director/drama league directing fellow.
A work like Sterner’s Other People’s Money allows for lengthy talk-backs and post-show driving discussions. Ultimately, there are two sides to everything, maybe more. Sterner was wise to leave some things to the imagination and Long Wharf did an exceptional job of bringing that to the production. While some elements of Other People’s Money are straight out of the eighties (it is set in 1989), others speak to our current corporate climate and the need to change with both the times and technology. It is a terrifically well-crafted and well-executed production – it is a must see!