Liquidation Nation: Other People’s Money Takes on Venture Capitalism

In the 1980s, the stock market became the ultimate symbol of American wealth and prosperity. Popular movies such as Wall Street, made in 1987, both lionized and condemned corporate raiders who had no use for working-class people who didn't aspire to economic power. The same year, playwright Jerry Sterner took a look at the spirit of the times in Other People’s Money, the story of how Larry “The Liquidator” Garfinkle sets in motion a hostile takeover of the New England Wire and Cable company. (An Off Broadway production, starring Mercedes Ruehl, opened in 1988.) At the time, it was received as a cynical celebration of the love of money and the outmoded outlook of small-town America.

Twenty-five years later, as the country sits in an economic downturn that makes the late-‘80s stock-market crash and ensuing early-‘90s recession look like a hiccup, the play resonates as an indictment of this love and the near futility of any protest against it, as well as a funeral dirge for our nation’s factory towns.

Other People's Money opens at the Santa Fe Playhouse on Friday, June 15. Directors Ron Bloomberg and Barry Hazen made minor updates to some cultural references, such as replacing telephone conversations with texting and tossing out the original play’s version of modernity (including one character’s IBM computer). Other than that, Hazen said, the play is actually more relevant today than it was when it was first produced—and the antihero, Larry the Liquidator, is actually tame by today’s standards for ruthlessness and greed.

Speaking of private equity firms and “vulture capitalists,” Bloomberg said, “They come in, they buy the company, they sell off some divisions, they fire the people, and somehow they walk away with millions of dollars. It’s a real art, but it’s not about creating jobs.”

Bloomberg wrote for several popular sitcoms, including One Day at a Time, All in the Family, Gimme a Break, and 227. He moved to Santa Fe eight years ago and developed a love of playwriting because he was able to write without a committee looking over his shoulder. A couple of years ago, he and Hazen were discussing the possibility of working together when they discovered they’d both been wanting to direct Other People’s Money for many years.

“For lack of a better term, it was complete serendipity,” Hazen said. The two divvied up the directing duties, with Bloomberg in charge of performance and Hazen in charge of the set, blocking, music, and other technical aspects of the production. On a recent visit to New York City, Hazen went to the Lortel Archives, which houses video recordings of past Off Broadway theater performances, to see how the play was originally staged. “It looked dated, a very prototypical late-‘80s play. The stage was just packed. They were leading the audience around by the ear, not letting them create the picture for themselves. The [Santa Fe] set designer, Chadney Everett, and I decided that less is going to be more here.”

The set is divided into two offices: that of Larry the Liquidator, whose desk sits on a slightly raised platform with a view of the Manhattan skyline, and the one belonging to New England Wire and Cable chairman Andrew Jorgenson, whose office is coated in factory soot and grime. “We want to show the stark contrast between the offices of someone like Jorgenson, who is mired in the past, and Garfinkle, who is a real shark. People that stumble, he eats them,” Hazen said.

With very little exposition to go on, the five actors in the cast are challenged to develop characters. The intimacies and old grievances between them are revealed slowly, especially in the case of Kate (played in this production by Debrianna Mansini), who is caught between her blue-collar childhood and her career as a lawyer.Her mother, Bea (Jennifer Graves), is Jorgenson’s longtime secretary and friend. It’s a relationship that Kate resents. She is called to action by her mother, who plays on her loyalties, but her sympathies lie with the money-makers in New York.

Mansini, a seasoned actress with film and television credits including Crazy Heart with Jeff Bridges, In Plain Sight, and Longmire, plays Kate as tightly wound and icy. Graves, a recent transplant from New York, used to run the Off Broadway company The Undercroft Players. She spent several years on the daytime soap opera All My Children and has acted in numerous regional and Off Broadway theater productions. As Bea, Graves is a no-nonsense New Englander, homespun, slightly schoolmarmish, dressed in a blazer, slacks, and sneakers. Her boss, Jorgenson, is played by Michael Davis, a veteran Broadway actor who was in the original Broadway production of Sweet Charity, as well as the film version, and has worked with such household names as Lauren Bacall, Angela Lansbury, Don Ameche, and Mike Nichols. (He was also a production singer in “Springtime for Hitler” in the 1968 film The Producers.) Davis imbues Jorgenson with fatherly warmth as well as a host of failings as a boss and as a businessman. He refuses to see the truth of the way the world works now, which directly affects the president of his company, William Coles.

Coles is portrayed by Jason Adams, who has appeared on In Plain Sight and Breaking Bad. Coles is not as slick as he thinks he is and possesses composure that he’d rather not break. Like Kate, Coles is caught between tradition and progress, loyalty and easy money. Playhouse regular David McConnell plays Larry the Liquidator. He is a force of nature. During a recent rehearsal, he never broke character, even when calling for a line. His Garfinkle is nasty, funny, lascivious, and menacing, an overgrown child who is almost blissfully unaware of the damage he causes—except that he is also quite obviously a manipulative sociopath who calculates every move for his own benefit.

“In his mind, Garfinkle thinks he’s Robin Hood, but he’s like a hurricane,” Hazen said. “Jorgenson has never experienced someone like Garfinkle. They think being folksy with him will make him go away. Well, just the opposite is true. It makes them more attractive to him.”

In the play, it’s explained that the New England Wire and Cable thrived when America was investing in its infrastructure. The company provided wire and cable for roads and bridges for 73 years. But it doesn’t stand a chance against the Liquidator. Jorgenson explains to his shareholders that Garfinkle is “the instrument of our destruction ... playing God with other people’s money. At least the robber barons of old left something tangible in their wake. A coal mine. A railroad. Banks. This man leaves nothing. He builds nothing. He runs nothing. In his wake lies nothing but a blizzard of paper to cover the pain.”

Jorgenson is wedded to what Garfinkle believes to be the old way of doing business (mirroring the current corporate mind-set that prioritizes the vagaries of the market and the pockets of investors over the financial security of workers). Other people losing their livelihoods, an entire town losing its economic foundation—these things have nothing to do with Garfinkle.

“We're dead all right,” Garfinkle says at a meeting of New England Wire and Cable’s shareholders. “We're not just broke. And you know the surest way to go broke? Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market. Down the tubes. Slow but sure. You know, at one time there must have been dozens of companies making buggy whips. And I’ll bet you anything the last one around was the one that made the best god damned buggy whip you ever saw. How would you like to have been a stuckholder of that company? You invested in a business. And that business is dead.

 

This article originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 06/15/2012