Sunday, November 27, 2016

Other People's Money (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I remember hearing about this play when it first appeared on Broadway, and later saw the movie starring Danny DeVito and Penelope Ann Miller. The film was okay.

The play, it turns out, pulls far fewer punches.  Other People's Money by Jerry Sterner isn't a new work but has lost precious little of its relevance.  Quite the opposite.  One of its punches ends up rather subtle. More on that later.

The story focuses on New England Wire & Cable, a struggling firm in Rhode Island targeted by Lawrence Garfinkel, aka "Larry the Liquidator" (Rob Adler), a man who specializes in taking over failing businesses and selling their assets at a profit.  At first the CEO of NEW&C, Jorgenson (Kent Minault) simply doesn't see the danger of a Wall Street bigwig buying up so much of his stock.  He greets Larry with open arms.  Larry even sighs, turns to the audience and says "Just my luck.  A nice guy." That little aside gives a hint as to what makes this play work so very well.  None of the characters really seem evil.  None are reckless or stupid or irresponsible.  But each has their own, in many ways perfectly valid, point of view.

Credit: Ed Krieger
Coles (Peter Michael McDonald), President of NEW&C, sees the danger at once, but cannot convince his boss, who clings to a view of business, industry and the economy that probably worked extremely well in the 1940s and 50s. As he begins to see what is at stake, he grudgingly agrees to get some help.  His secretary Bea (D.J.Harner) has a daughter, Kate (Robyn Cohen), a big time lawyer in New York.  She almost as reluctantly agrees to help, still bitter that these two betrayed her late father for years, even if (as seems possible) their relationship remained platonic.

But of course Jorgenson won't take any of her advice.  Instead he insults her, and only Coles manages to persuade her to say.  When she finally agrees to go meet Larry, things step up a notch--and foreshadows so very much of what is to come.
Point of views in total conflict.  The real world is like that.

Credit: Ed Krieger
They like each other.  Oh, they fight like cats and dogs.  Theirs is a struggle of wills, and both enjoy that fact to the hilt.  Unlike others, they understand precisely what each other means--while Kate all-too-clearly doesn't believe the arguments she's making on behalf of her client.  

More, Larry turns out to have a rigid set of ethics, in its own way as unbending as Jorgenson.  Larry sees himself as an advocate of shareholders, those who own and invest in companies with the express purpose of making a profit.

Eventually it all comes down to a showdown at the shareholders' meeting, with each side giving their case.

Credit: Ed Krieger
Notice who is meeting?  Wonder which one they will listen to?  This climax of the play probably highlights the best acting in the entire show, especially Harner's reading of the formal procedures, as we can hear in every breath she knows how this will go.  Just as we see Minault feels pretty much the same way, and is utterly wrong. When Adler at the end simply says "I'm sorry" to Cohen, a lot of subtext flowed into those two words.

Barely mentioned in all this are the ordinary workers, who lose their jobs.  And you want to blame someone, but it is hard to pin too much blame on anyone.  What, do we expect investors not to want a return on their investment?  Is their desire for a good life with money enough to pay for same somehow inferior to those of blue collar workers?  Yeah, the company should have changed with the times, but is that really something everyone can do?  We might decry human frailty and error, but there really isn't anyway around it, is there?  So we are left with neither a diatribe against soulless financial sharks nor a panacea about finding a way to make everything all right.  The play ends on a melancholy note, with the characters--and hopefully the audience--a bit wiser.  In the end therein lies all the hope we are likely to get.  Up to us to make that enough.

Other People's Money plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays ata 3pm at the Pico Playhouse 10508 West Pico Blvd, Los Angeles CA 90064, until December 18, 2016.

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