Other People's Money: Tales of the Street

Other People's Money By Jerry Sterner At the Hasty Pudding Theater Through October 6

It is a shame, William Coles remarks at the beginning of Other People's Money, that more plays are not devoted to the business world. Coles, the character who serves as narrator of Jerry Sterner's play, insists that "business-people have a story to tell," one which includes "loyalty, tradition, friendship and, of course, money."

Don't bet on the first three. Other People's Money is a raucous and zestfully acted story of the greenback, a cautionary tale about the Wall Street ethos and its impact on American business. Sterner, whose play draws from his own experience as a stock market investor, zips the audience from one witty scene to another, and he skillfully weaves the moral of the story into a string of exquisite punchlines. As a result, Other People's Money is both humorous and disturbing.

Other People's Money explores the conflict between the interests of the stockholders and those of the owners of New England Wire and Cable, a small manufacturing company located in Rhode Island. Thanks to years of frugal ownership by Andrew Jorgenson (William Cain), the son of the company's founder, Wire and Cable has no debt and undervalued stock. These assets attract the attention of Lawrence Garfinkle (Jack Willis), a New York corporate raider nicknamed "Larry the Liquidator." Garfinkle wants to buy large chunks of stock, drive up the price of each share, then deep-six the company and sell off its various divisions.

At first Jorgenson is ecstatic; the inflated stock prices caused by Garfinkle's bid will reward those local investors who already held shares. When Coles (William Damkoehler) informs him of Garfinkle's real intentions, Jorgenson overcomes his instinctive aversion to lawyers and hires Kate Sullivan (Anne Scurria), a high-powered New York attorney, to defend the company. The struggle for control culminates in a shareholder's meeting at which Garfinkle and Jorgenson must argue their respective views of the company and its future.

In Garfinkle, Sterner has created a hillarious incarnation of capitalist evil, a man so consumed with avarice that he programs his computer to tell him daily which shares "are the fairest of them all." Willis, who appeared in the original Off-Broadway production, gives Garfinkle an emotional presence to match his considerable bulk. Unlike Gordon Gekko, the smoothly detatched anti-hero of Oliver Stone's Wall Street, Garfinkle physically revels in the obscene amounts of money he is making. He pumps his arm, chews gum ferociously and hurls one-liners across the stage.

"On Wall Street, restructuring means never having to say you're sorry," Garfinkle exclaims. And he defends the huge staff of attorneys he keeps, asserting, "Lawyers are like nuclear warheads. They have them, you need them."

At its heart Other People's Money is a simple morality piece, a clash of good and evil told in financial jargon. The only problem with Sterner's play is that it suffers from the Batman syndrome--as in Tim Burton's movie, the evil character has the best dialogue and so enjoys his wicked doings that the audience cannot help being drawn to him. Though Cain does his best to flesh out the "good-guy" model written for him, Jorgenson still resembles Wilford Brimley in a Quaker Oats commercial--he wants to preserve his company because "it's the right thing to do."

Sterner, who lives in Brooklyn, may have more of a feel for New Yorkers than New Englanders. It is certainly true that the only other engaging character in the play is Sullivan, the Big Apple attorney. Scurria brings a relish to her role matched only by Willis, and the verbal duels between the two provide some of this production's most entertaining moments.

An annoyingly sappy subplot between Sullivan and her mother Bea (Barbara Orson) clogs the plot, but Sterner wisely devotes only a small portion of the play to it. And, although Other People's Money contains several preachy speeches in the second act, Sterner's restores some credibility with a cynical denouement.

Richard Jenkins' direction is fluid, creating a continuity of action to match the fast-paced dialogue. The number of slamming doors and quick turnabouts may not rival Noises Off, but the pace of this production never flags. David Rotondo's set nicely blends the amicable clutter of the New England Wire and Cable with the shiny paneling of Garfinkel's New York office, allowing the characters to ignore time and space as they travel between New York and Rhode Island.

And if at times the slimy characters in this production seem too sympathetic one need only read of the latest insider trading scandal on Wall Street to understand just how many people are seduced by Garfinkel's lifestyle. In his final appeal to the shareholders of the company which he has run for several decades, Jorgenson implores them not to let America become a "nation that makes nothing but hamburgers, creates nothing but lawyers, and produces nothing but shareholders." After watching Other People's Money, one gets the chilling impression that this speech comes a little too late.

Sterner zips the audience from one witty scene to another, and he skillfully weaves the moral of the story into a string of exquisite punchlines.