By Annette Hinkle
There’s been a lot of talk in the news recently about the interests of Main Street versus Wall Street. Specifically, conversations have focused on how the machinations and philosophies of big financial firms don’t always translate to those of small town America.
But what about when they do? What happens when the edges of Main Street and Wall Street blur?
This week, Center Stage at Southampton Cultural Center explores that very issue when the theatrical group opens a production of “Other People’s Money (The Ultimate Seduction)” a play written by Jerry Sterner, who in fact worked on Wall Street for many years. “Other People’s Money” opened Off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York in 1989 and enjoyed a nearly two year run. The script is one that has long intrigued Center Stage director Michael Disher, and though it was written more than 20 years ago, he finds the questions it poses are still relevant today — perhaps even more so given the financial debacles and scandals that have plagued so many Americans who put their faith (and cash) into the system.
But in this script, notes Disher, the bad guy isn’t necessarily who you expect it to be — and in fact, there may not be a bad guy at all.
Much of the action in “Other People’s Money” takes place in a small un-named town in Rhode Island, in the offices of New England Wire and Cable. The firm is run by Andrew “Jorgy” Jorgenson, the ancestor of the company’s founder, and it is a major employer in town.
“It’s an 81 year old company and it’s not doing very well,” explains Disher. “The stock, over the course of years, has plummeted from $60 to $10 a share. With the help of a new manager, they have diversified and other areas are very strong. It’s just the mother company drags it all down.”
Enter corporate raider Lawrence Garfinkle, a.k.a. “Larry the Liquidator,” a Wall Street renegade who sees a great opportunity to buy the stock low, jack it up and then sell it, thereby crushing the company, which would be extremely helpful to the stock holders.
“Then moral and ethical issues arise,” says Disher. “If New England Wire and Cable is crushed, there are 1,200 people who would lose their jobs.” says Disher.
In an attempt to thwart the hostile takeover, Jorgy hires Kate, a young and attractive lawyer who goes head to head with Garfinkle in the battle over the company’s future. While at first glance, most people would be tempted to paint Larry Garfinkle as the bad guy in this play, Disher says he cannot. In fact, everything Garfinkle is doing is perfectly legal and he simply has one group of interests at stake — the stockholders — who stand to profit if he is successful.
“Most are long term stockholders – 30 to 40 years – and now the stock has gone from $10 to $20 in a matter of months,” explains Disher.
At the other end of the continuum is Jorgenson, who owns 25 percent of the stock but stands to lose his company if Garfinkle is successful.
“Jorgenson’s also worried about the more human aspect of it — of local people about to lose their jobs,” says Disher. “But is it less human for stockholders to lose their money?”
And like all thought provoking scripts, in the middle lie very subtle shades of gray that complicate the moral spectrum. Among them is an employee at a local bank who is hedging his bet by buying up more and more of the stock. He’s a stake holder with interests in Wall Street, but very deep roots in the community.
“Everything is generated by people’s need for power. Once you add that piece to the recipe, it gets very interesting,” says Disher. “It’s not a question of who’s right or wrong, but who’s more right or less wrong. There’s no definitive good guy or bad guy. No one is a saint.”
The play also poses the question to audiences of “What would you do?” Even the actors in this production can’t agree on which side holds higher moral ground, which Disher explains has made for interesting conversations between them in the weeks leading up to opening night.
“The rehearsal process has been fraught with debate,” says Disher. “Which is great. Nothing is conclusive. It’s more an issue of how does this guy or woman play out this journey?”
“The actors have dedicated a great deal of time, energy and perseverance to this play. They recognize it’s a great script,” he adds. “You have this enmeshment component and five characters with different and varied vested interests. Everyone’s very much out for themselves. From an audience’s standpoint, I like that you can look at all the characters and can’t criticize or justify it.”
For Disher, this is probably the most thought provoking piece he’s directed since “Doubt,” the John Patrick Shanley play in which a nun suspects a priest of sexually abusing a student in the Catholic school where they both work. That play was made into a highly acclaimed movie in 2008 starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep. While the subject matter of “Other People’s Money” may be very different, complex moral issues still abound.
“Garfinkle at the end of Act I considers himself a modern day Robin Hood,” says Disher. “He doesn’t believe what he’s doing is wrong. He’s taking care of people who had the foresight and the promise and earnestness to take their hard earned money and invest in what they felt was worth investing in.”
“Ultimately the vote is left to the stockholders … and I won’t tell you how it goes,” says Disher. “Sterner did a masterful job with this play. It’s clever, smart, funny insightful, and above all thought provoking. I really hope people leave the show debating.”
Center Stage’s production of “Other People’s Money (The Ultimate Seduction)” opens Friday, January 21. Shows are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Sunday matinees are at 2:30 p.m. through February 6. General admission is $22 ($20 seniors/$10 students). Southampton Cultural Center is at 25 Pond Lane, Southampton. Call 287-4377 to reserve.