D on’t hate the player. Hate the game.
That’s the takeaway I didn’t expect from Other People’s Money, a satisfying play that often feels procedural in the moment but continues to bloom in your brain after you’ve left your seat. Just opened at Long Wharf Theatre, the plot—in which an undervalued Rhode Island manufacturer is raided by a Wall Street shark, who bites up stock to force a profitable liquidation while the company’s management maneuvers to stop him—may seem familiar, even archetypal, in 2016. A photo from a classic film with many similar elements—Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, released the same year this play premiered, in 1987—even gets half a page in Long Wharf’s program.
But while OPM’s shark, Larry Garfinkle, invites an immediate comparison to Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, it turns out Garfinkle’s no Gekko. Played colorfully here by a besuited, shiny-domed Jordan Lage, he’s not quite the unmitigated villain he seems to be. Gradually, he transforms into an anti-villain or, maybe, if you buy more deeply into his arguments, a sort of anti-hero: selfish, crass and aggressive but with emergent likable qualities (including senses of humor and humility), whose outlook, which gives an awful first impression, becomes unnervingly persuasive.
He doesn’t say workers, including a thrifty, nuts-and-bolts management team that forms the bulk of the play’s other characters, don’t matter. Instead he says stockholders, who it seems would likely make more money via his plan than they otherwise would—and who have provided much of the capital that pays the company’s bills—matter too. And if the company and its employees aren’t achieving gains for their benefactors—the company’s share price dropped from $60 to $10 in the decade preceding Garfinkle’s gambit—then maybe the business and even the jobs it provides aren’t actually good. Maybe they aren’t even morally justified.
It’s tempting to think the playwright, Jerry Sterner, a reformed shark himself, and perhaps the director, Marc Bruni, like the counterarguments better. Those are treated more preciously, including during a shareholders’ meeting near the end, when the big vote—to pursue a liquidation or stay the course—is imminent. That’s when the company’s aging president, Andrew Jorgenson, a principled if also naive throwback played by Edward James Hyland, delivers “the speech of his life,” as another character puts it. “A business is more than the price of its stock,” Jorgenson says, among many other rousing things. “It is the place where we make our living, meet our friends and dream our dreams. It is, in every sense, the very fabric that binds our society together. So let us, right now, at this meeting, say to every Garfinkle in this land, that here we build things, we don’t destroy them. Here, we care for more than the price of our stock. Here,” he pauses for dramatic effect, “we care about people.”
To which Garfinkle, with his Bronx accent and salesman’s charm, effectively retorts, “But which people? Certainly not the shareholders,” and it’s a troublingly effective response. Perhaps if Jorgenson and company had been willing to be champions of both their community and their stock price, Garfinkle wouldn’t have come knocking in the first place.
A moral discussion is more interesting when opposing sides have good points at their disposal, and a morally concerned play is more interesting when the audience is surprised to discover as much. I wonder who else in the crowd felt amazed sometime in the play’s latter half, when they realized that, slowly but surely, the once odious-feeling Garfinkle had become the straightest shooter on the stage.
As the company’s defenders wage PR campaigns; as they celebrate backroom favors from legislators and a judge; as they seem to mostly ignore the question about whether their company is, to use Garfinkle’s word, on the brink of “obsolescence,” and thus whether it could plausibly provide a return to its investors down the line; the shark keeps cracking jokes and buying more undervalued stock.
He’s just playing the game the way it’s set up to be played, and it’s harder than you’d think to hate him for that.
Written by Dan Mims. Photographed by T. Charles Erickson.