Business as Usual
Andrew Jorgenson -- whom everyone calls "Jorgy" -- has been running his New England Wire and Cable Company with integrity for decades, avoiding debt, providing decent jobs and helping keep his community vital and solvent. He's supported in this by his loving longtime companion, Bea. Enter the vulgar, doughnut-craving Lawrence Garfinkle, a financial shark who's planning a hostile takeover. Jorgy enlists the services of Bea's daughter, Kate, a lawyer for Morgan Stanley, and the fight commences. Kate and Garfinkle joust sexily; Kate returns to Jorgy and suggests strategies to safeguard the company; Jorgy refuses to contemplate any unethical action; Kate and Garfinkle's jousting becomes sexier still. It's not hard to see who's going to win this one.
Jerry Sterner's Other People¹s Money is occasionally talky, bogged down in Wall Street terminology. At the climax, the action comes to a screeching halt as Jorgy and Garfinkle give long, long speeches on their differing economic philosophies. Jorgy evokes the homespun, humanistic values dear to traditional conservatives. Garfinkle, embodying the spirit of the Reagan years (the play is set in the 1980s), delivers an ode to financial Darwinism. He is doing the country a service, he declares, by clearing away weak and soon-to-be-obsolete companies. And he's serving the interests of investors, whose concerns are ultimately more important than those of workers and local residents, because their solvency keeps the entire economy afloat.
Garfinkle's speech is so self-serving and playwright Sterner so cagey that it didn't occur to me until later that these arguments were meant to be taken seriously. But then I read director Janet DeRuvo's notes for this Denver Victorian Playhouse production and realized that's exactly how she takes them. She thinks the play embodies a genuine moral dilemma, and she quotes from an article by one Jomana Papillo posted on the website Rebirth of Reason, which propagates Ayn Rand's Objectivist beliefs. This suggests that Jorgy, through his stubborn goodness, has betrayed his workers and his stockholders, while Garfinkle is operating from what DeRuvo calls "the most noble of intentions."
Sterner never entirely tips his hand, but he has made Kate, played by Lisa Rosenhagen, and Garfinkle, played by Wade P. Wood, the liveliest and most interesting of the characters, while Bea and Jorgy seem subdued and a little moth-eaten. This is exacerbated by the fact that Wood and Rosenhagen give the strongest performances of the evening -- he lewd, warm-blooded and chuckling, she striding from side to side, silk-shirted, energetic and leggy. Since she's supposedly a feminist, I had to wonder about Sterner's intentions in having her capitulate to Garfinkle, transforming from a tough-minded adversary to a combination of tamed dominatrix and declawed kitten -- just feisty enough, in other words, to be the perfect mate for an Ayn Rand hero.
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For those of us not versed in the language and dynamics of high finance, the play does function as a kind of economics lesson, but as a text for business classes (which it's apparently been), it seems lacking. The focus is narrow, and it shies away from the real, framing issues. From my school days, I remember some ideas about capitalism, about providing value, responding to consumer needs and demands, preventing monopoly. Within this framework, businesses like Jorgy's were the ideal. But during the Reagan years, these rules began flying out the window. Finance became a paper game. Profit was uncoupled from product. Monopolies formed and formed again. Giant corporations pushed out smaller businesses, then reined in consumer choice. In this system, the economy can thrive while the middle class sinks, workers lose security and the poor are pushed onto the streets -- and you have to wonder just who that economy represents. Garfinkle's image of himself as benefactor is the fantasy that exploiters feed themselves. But what he's really acting on is a deep-seated belief that his behavior is justified by his superiority to everyone else.
Although their parts are weaker as written, Michael Balch as Jorgy and Karen Kargel as Bea could help balance the play if they made you feel the love between them and the passionate force of their convictions, but they don't quite manage this (although both turn in pleasant performances). William Coles, the director who sees where the company is going and gets himself a golden parachute by betraying Jorgy, is played with finesse by Michael Grittner.
Within the narrow framework Sterner sets up, the play is well-staged and entertaining. But even with Jeffrey Skilling and "Kenny Boy" Lay headed for prison, it's hard to hear Garfinkle's "You can't stop the game. I don't go away. I adapt" without a shudder.
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