Other People’s Moneyby Jerry Sterner. Directed by Eric Peterson.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"That’s a nice turn of phrase; we used to call it "going out of business."
Paula Mann and Phil Lance; photo: provided
In 1989 a small cast play opened at the Minetta Lane Theater in New York’s Greenwich Village. It was a play about greed, lust, greed, condescension, greed and greed. It was about a business takeover by a mean son-of-a-bitch whose only other passions seemed to be seduction and humiliation. It was a major hit starring Kevin Conway and Mercedes Ruehl, playing for over two years and then emerging as a major film in 1991 starring Danny DeVito, Penelope Ann Miller and Gregory Peck in his last major role.
Still one of the most produced shows in regional theaters it has made its way to us via Oldcastle Theatre Company in Bennington, Vermont where it has taken up temporary residence in a fine semi-arena production in Oldcastle’s new Main Street building. Perhaps it was the greed that rides so prevalent a black horse through the show, or maybe it was the lust, so angry and dark and disturbing, but no less a dark and depressing luminary than New York Magazine’s theater critic John Simon had this to say about the play: "Funny, serious, suspenseful, involving, disturbing, and above all, expertly crafted...Epic grandeur and intimate titillation combined. It is the most stimulating kind of entertainment."
Voted winner of the "Best Off-Broadway Play of 1989" by the Outer Critics Circle this play still speaks to the heart of a matter that is as perfectly sound and real today as it was back then. The hostile takeover with its tailwind of destruction to communities and lives still reigns supreme today. Just look at your daily paper, if you still have, or your weekly for that matter. The evidence is right in front of your eyes.
For their fine production Oldcastle has enlisted special talents, people who can convey all of the oddly assorted human traits needed to make this play work. Phil Lance is the master of industry whose company is under attack. Paula Mann is his secretary and lover. Richard Howe plays the industrialist’s right hand man. Jenny Strassberg is the young lawyer enlisted to help save the company from a premature burial and Paul Romero plays the bad guy, money man, the luster-in-chief.
As productions go this one has a lot going for it. Sets by Wm. John Aupperlee provide the right spaces in which to play the play while Elizabeth Stott’s costumes clearly define the players and David V. Groupe provides lighting that is both illuminating and emotional giving the show both a warm, cozy element and a cold, indifferent one as well.
Eric Peterson has provided his company with excellent spaces in which to play out their private moments and fine definitions for their more public moments. His use of almost choreographed body language helps us see the growing relationships, both good and bad, among the characters. He defines lust and greed and the differences between them with the assistance of his actors, especially Romero and Strassburg with Mann right behind. This is an excellent example of what this director does best.
Phil Lance plays Andrew Jorgenson with strength and vigor, always holding on to his dignity and his intentions with clarity. What makes this character sad, rather than tragic, is his sense of leering at the inevitable, pushing it away with the heels of both hands. Lance knows how to use that sense of absolute conviction in this role and his final speech to his employees and stockholders is a beautiful example of "might makes right" and "safety in numbers" when there is no might, no safety, no numbers and no right. We know what he is struggling with and why and as we watch him try to make a graceful grand exit, it is only the shuffling off of a defeated soul. Lance pulls this off without a hitch.
Suffering alongside him is Paula Mann as his faithful lover and secretary. Bea Sullivan, her character, has lost her husband and almost lost her daughter in Bea’s quest for a love relationship fulfillment. She staggers across the stage, lunging after donuts; she works within the problem—and Mann does this part masterfully—hoping to solve her boss’s problems; she shields and shelters him; antagonizes her daughter and then rejects her; she is all things to all people and she does it very well.
Howe turns in a highly credible performance in the role of William Coles. Partly as narrator of the story and partly as full collaborator in the performance his simple and credible style works well for him here. A few times I hoped for a bit more ardent behavior, but his choices are all credible and work for him and for the character.
Strassburg fully understands the levels of anger and how to express them. At some point in this play she is angry at just about everyone. Her take on anger management varies from direct confrontation to sexual agitation and she plays the nuances in between with as much fervor as she plays either of the extremes. Her performance is strong and steady and she leads the company in playing out the relationships within the playwright’s intentions.
Paul Romero’s anti-hero gets the best of all worlds here. Larry Garfinkle is the catalyst for everything that takes place here and at the same time he is the object over which every action and reaction is focused. Nothing takes place outside his oddly God-like ken. Romero gives him a strange, unfortunate stage presence that is at first appalling, then later becomes appealing. He starts out gloating and that is frightening to watch but he ends up glowing and that is a transition I never expected to see. This actor does some superb acting and makes a pure cad into someone you actually can like.
Taken altogether the elements are in line for "Other People’s Money." An American masterwork has been brought back to life in Vermont and its life may just be a bit too short.
Other People’s Money is playing at Oldcastle Theatre Company’s Main Street stage in Bennington, Vermont through June 30. For information and tickets all the box office at 802-447-0564 or go on line to www.oldcastletheatre.org