10 July 2009: Sterner, Other People’s Money

New Century Theatre, Smith College, Theatre 14. Directed by Keith Langsdale

Keith Langsdale, the director of this N. C. T. production of Other People’s Money, in his note on the play describes the author, Jerry Sterner, as “a very nice man” and “also a visionary.” Sterner was in fact a self-made man, Langsdale goes on, rising from selling tokens for the New York Transit Authority to the presidency of a real estate company; he then went on investing in the stock market and wrote this play. That doesn’t necessarily seem to make him either a nice guy or a visionary; we’ll have to take Langsdale’s word for the first attribute; as for the second, there is nothing whatever visionary about the play. On the contrary, it is as much a predictable comedy as any that Neil Simon ever wrote.

Sterner hangs his tale of ruthless New York market success on the old framework of “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl.” As for the idea, mentioned in the publicity for the production, that Sterner’s play speaks eloquently to our time (our time being a time when lots of businesses are going under and the general economic situation is miserable), it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, in fact anything we didn’t already know back in the 1980s, when Sterner’s play made its debut in Teaneck, New Jersey, and swiftly transferred to Off Broadway, where Wall Street brokers and their ilk filled the audience night after night and helped the play succeed in business without really trying.

In an interview published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette shortly before the season opened, Sam Rush, the producing director of N. C. T., was quoted as saying that audience comments from last year said that there were emotional situations in one or another of the plays produced that caused them some consternation. They said they didn’t like consternation when they went to the theater, and they asked for no more consternation, apparently. Sam seems to have decided that the survival of his theater depends on a rigorous repression of such emotional situations, by choosing plays that are bona fide comedies, plays that will not come close to taxing the emotional reserves of the audience.

The result is that, this season, we have a Neil Simon play (The Last of the Red Hot Lovers) followed by the present comedy (the season, so far, half-way through). The difference between the two comedies could be described as the difference between a Shakespeare romantic comedy and a Massinger city comedy — that is, the difference between a play whose hero is a naive, sentimental schmuck surrounded by a bunch of kooks and a hero who is a knave for whom all the rest of the characters, fools all, are no match. Even the “girl,” Kate Sullivan, who is supposedly a very smart, uppity lawyer, whose mother persuades her to take up the cause for the floundering New England Wire and Cable Company, headquartered a million miles away in Rhode Island (pronounced “Row Disland”) ends up being no match for the hero, Lawrence Garfinkle, who loves money, doughnuts, and women, and the last two are in a dead heat with the first, and who shows us the kind of visionary thing that Langsdale may have had in mind when he suggests that the author himself is a visionary. Garfinkle, it’s true, sees farther and more clearly than anyone else in the play, and he understands in a simple, matter-of-fact way where the world of finance is going. In articulating his vision, he speaks, more eloquently than any broker in his audience could, on their behalf. No romantics in this audience, believe me. Garfinkle is completely untroubled by moral or ethical issues; he commands a large stable of lawyers who do his bidding without protest, he is used to getting his way in all things, and though it would seem that the playwright has initially set him up, like a Wall Street Humpty Dumpty, for a catastrophic fall, it doesn’t happen. Instead, Humpty Dumpty runs completely against type, persuades the docile, biddable stockholders that they should vote for his vision, and when they do, he emerges doubly triumphant. Not only does he make multiple millions of dollars on the sale of the wire and cable company to him, a sale which he will then convert by closing down the company and making still more millions of dollars on the closing, but he co-opts Kate Sullivan into joining his firm and then becoming his partner, and then — wouldn’t you have guessed it? — his wife.

The character in the play who functions as a quasi-narrator, William Coles, who started the play off for us by setting the scene and (we would have thought) the terms of the conflict, finishes it for us by telling us that by all accounts and purposes Kate and Garfinkle, who now have two children, are quite happy together. (How would he know? Why would he care?) There you have it: boy meets girl, boy loses girl (or appears to have put her off, because she is determined to win — “I’m going to nail you, Garfinkle!” she tells him in the middle of the play), boy gets girl.

It may sound as if I had a really terrible time in the theater last night. This is not entirely true. Sterner’s play is fairly skillfully written, within the framework suggested above, with one exception, which I will turn to in a moment. In particular, the role of Lawrence Garfinkle is a star turn, beautifully fashioned, a brilliant vehicle for the kind of actor Ed Jewett is; and, fortunately, Jewett was playing Garfinkle. Jewett is morbidly overweight, has the physique and determination of a Japanese wrestler, is a very believable devourer of doughnuts (though his self-admitted three-pack-a-day habit we have to take on trust, in this anti-tobacco age), and is just the kind of overreacher that Massinger wrote about when he portrayed the character of Sir Giles Overreach, in that wonderfully long-lived play A New Way to Pay Old Debts. His tastes and desires are exorbitant, his methods of self-aggrandizement are shamefully malicious, and he leaves all other evil-doers in his wake — until, at the last, he is discovered, embarrassed, and defeated. That was the way that city comedy had to be in Shakespeare’s and Massinger’s time. In our own time, when plays have much less ethical import, and are good mainly for a night out on the town, with a resulting hangover, perhaps, but with no perceivable long-term repercussions, it’s quite okay for a character like Garfinkle to ruin a lot of other also-rans, drive a number of ordinary workers out of work and into bankruptcy, leave the befuddled owner of the destroyed company with some millions of dollars to compensate him for his moral loss, and not incur the enmity of anyone, including anyone in the audience. Instead, just as in the old Jacobean comedy, we enjoy to the hilt the expeditions of the knavish hero, and then proceed to cheer him on when he gets the girl as well. That’s the way of the world, circa 1985 and again in 2009.

I said I would say a word about the narrator, Bill Coles. Coles is the manager of the wire and cable company. He has made good in a modest way, good enough to send his kid to Columbia College. And he is young enough, that is, he is middle-aged enough, to see the way the world is trending and understand that new ways of doing things, that is, new financial ways of doing things, are not just on the horizon but are part of the here and now. And he wants in on this. He tries to persuade his boss, the owner of the company, Andrew Jorgenson (called “Jorgie”), that he has no choice but to capitulate to Garfinkle’s way of doing things. Jorgie prefers to hang tough, against all “sensible” advice. This deeply frustrates Coles, who thinks he deserves a “golden parachute,” as he unsentimentally puts it; and so, when Jorgie says something that hurts his feelings and makes him feel undervalued, he does a deal under the table with Garfinkle, selling him the right to vote Coles’s thousands of shares, in return for a million dollars — or half a million, if it turns out Garfinkle doesn’t need them. Ironically, it turns out that Garfinkle doesn’t need those shares, but Coles pockets his compromise reward anyway. We are to understand that the real Coles is strictly a time-server, as it turns out, even though he started out speaking in a tone that would almost have persuaded us that he was going to tell us a moral tale, whose outcome would show us, in what could be called the Miss Prismatic World View, that good is on the side of the righteous and that the bad deserve what they get. How naïve we are! Of course, it turns out just the other way around. We have paid a fairly high price for being so well entertained: we have the feeling we’ve been trifled with, perhaps even trafficked with, by this “visionary” playwright, who, the director takes pains to remind us, is really a nice guy. Well, that helps a lot, doesn’t it?

And so we exit the theater feeling we have been very well entertained by two actors, Ed Jewett and the Kate, Marianna Bassham, who from the point of view of sheer acting talent are very much a match for one another, even though their characters conform to the old-fashioned stereotype of the strong hero overcoming the weak but winning heroine. At the same time, we can’t help feeling cheated. Surely there is a better way to present the conscienceless clobbering of the working class by the merchant class than to pretend that, hey, this is only the way of the world and these materials are the stuff of traditional, old-fashioned comedy. Well, I suppose we have to take the longer view and realize that the times, they are a-changin’. And have been changin’ ever since Sir Giles had to face his comeuppance. As for myself, I prefer a little old-fashioned emotional consternation.

Hmm. Maybe I got it, after all.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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