The Art Of The Steal

T. Charles Erickson Photos“There are three things that give you unconditional acceptance,” Larry “The Liquidator” Garfinkle tells the audience midway through Other People’s Money, on at Long Wharf Theatre now through Dec. 18.

One is dogs. The second is donuts. The third is money.

But dogs will relieve themselves all over your floor. Donuts will make you fat. Only money — money itself, rather than the comfort it may buy — can lead to happiness. In other words, greed is good after all. Or is it?

That’s the question the characters in Other People’s Money find themselves asking — in many different ways, many different times — in Jerry Sterner’s 1989 play, which packed the house Wednesday for Long Wharf’s opening night. Set between a small working-class town in Rhode Island and Wall Street’s chic but suspect Manhattan offices, the play explores the fate of American industry, the people who work within it, and the people who are seeking to buy it out.

In Rhode Island, Andrew “Jorgy” Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland) is trying to salvage his beloved New England Wire & Cable, where he and a factory staff of 1,200 have gone without a raise for three years to save the company. There’s magical old-timey thinking involved: Jorgy is sure it’ll rebound with an industrial renaissance. He has two faithful (or are they?) servants: his administrative assistant and lover Bea (Karen Ziemba), who will stick her neck out at his every ornery request, and company president Bill Coles (Steve Routman), who has been promised ownership of the company in two years, when Jorgy retires at the age of 70. As the company stocks begin to skyrocket for the first time in several years, they’re faced with the bonafide villain who is snatching them up: Garfinkle, who seeks to buy out the company through a sticky web of mergers and acquisitions, and make millions from a deal that will kill off thousands of jobs.   

Sound familiar, in a Big-Short-before-the-big-short kind of way? It should. So much so that the tension that follows, as Garfinkle buys up more shares and New England Wire & Cable lawyers up with Bea’s tenacious daughter Kate (Liv Rooth), feels as customary as it does devastating. On both sides, parties are asking a question we already know the unhappy ending to: What will the primary stakeholders in the business risk — or not risk — to keep their money? And what is the human cost at which that decision will come?

Written by Sterner when corporate takeovers were booming, the play seems very much a product of its time. Vilified from the outset, money-grubbing Garfinkle (Jordan Lage) is a dead ringer for Gordon Gekko, who falls squarely at the center of Oliver Stone’s 1987 Wall Street and maintains, through the bitter end of things, that greed is good. The victims that litter his path — in this case, thousands of middle-aged workers who have built with their hands for decades, and don’t have other skills in their professional wheelhouses — are small casualties, symptoms of a past America that isn’t coming back, but from which he can still squeeze out a profit.

He isn’t alone in this insatiable, contagious economic hunger. Coles, who we see as both friend and foe by the play’s end, seems a sort of financial throwback to Walter Neff, the complicated narrator and insurance salesman of Billy Wilder’s 1944 Double Indemnity (which ends, not ironically, with a plan to resuscitate New England Wire & Cable), who knows every ugly error he will make, every unscrupulous thing he will do during the film, and cannot help but recount them anyway. 

Though Other People’s Money also moves beyond its web of references. Sterner’s writing is nuanced, and the cast carries it heroically. Lage plays the perfect New York creep. Rooth makes Kate a character you want more of after the play has ended. And there’s a lot to unpack in this 100-minute financial bloodbath. Unctuous Garfinkle may make audience members want to throw up in their mouths a little, but he strikes a sure blow, cataclysmic in its truthiness, when he declares the bulk of New England industry dead or dying. Jorgy is honest to a fault, but audience members can’t help but wonder if his raging nostalgia ends up costing everything where jobs could have been saved. Even Coles turns out to be understandably, if not quite lovably, duplicitous by his final monologue, which closes the show.   

For its ability to capture a recent historical moment, this production of Other People’s Money also feels radically timely. This isn’t just about New England’s factory workers, from the now-defunct paper mills of Maine to New Haven’s firearms manufacturers, but about coal miners in West Virginia who have been out of work for two years, fast-talking Floridians who need health insurance but wouldn’t vote for a Democrat if their lives depended on it. Throughout the show, characters look to Harry Truman as their reference point — for Jorgy, he is all that is good, and for Garfinkle, all that is dead and gone — but it’s the impending Trump administration that hangs heavy over the audience when the stage lights have gone down.

What, members are left to grapple with in the silence that precedes applause, will go next? Who will win and who will lose? What are the stakes?

And if, in some way, we stand to profit from that deal — what are we willing to pay?

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