Writer: Jerry Sterner
Director: Katharine Farmer
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
“Money is unconditional acceptance” argues Lawrence Garfinkle, the soulless raider from Wall Street who buys flailing companies only to sell off their assets in Jerry Sterner’s 1989 play which became a film two years later. Revived now at the Southwark Playhouse, Other People’s Money is the evocation of the “greed is good” mantra, a play that forcefully suggests that given the choice to do the right thing or make money, its money every time.
Andrew Jorgenson (“Jorgy”) has been running a wire and cable company in New England for decades, following in his father’s footsteps by employing many of the local townsfolk to make useful products. But when a computer programme identifies the firm as a possible takeover target, Jorgy (Michael Brandon) and his team are thrown into the path of Lawrence Garfinkle and a battle ensues to protect this family business from the onslaught of 80s high finance.
Katherine Farmer’s production is a slick and fast-paced evening, making short work of its two 50-minute Acts. Using a traverse stage, scenes flow quickly into one another with a cinematic speed using Sam Waddington’s lighting design and John Leonard’s sound to denote changes in time and location. With Jorgy and Garfinkle’s desks at either end, Emily Leonard’s sparse set does enough to imply the changing pace of 80s life with Jorgy’s paper-filled office dwarfed by the latter’s leather chair and graffiti-like painting, complemented by a wire fence at either end of the auditorium as though the city is mercilessly closing-in on this New England town.
Having worked for a real-estate business until becoming a full-time writer, the structure and detail in Sterner’s play has the feel of insider knowledge, full of financial terms and phrases which, particularly at the start, bamboozle the audience. The complex buying of stock options, the various deals that lawyer Kate tries to negotiate with Garfinkle and the idea of making money from stock that doesn’t physically exist isn’t always as clear as it might be in this production, and while tensions clearly rise, there is little to differentiate what seems like repeated versions of the same conversations throughout the play – Kate and Garfinkle flirt / negotiate and Jorgy says no to every deal that puts his employees out of work for two hours.
Farmer’s focus on the mechanics of the corporate world doesn’t leave quite enough room for the interior life of the characters to fully emerge with little emotional development as the story unfolds. Rob Locke has plenty of great lines as the villainous Garfinkle, he’s sexist, occasionally racist and likes to philosophise about the art of making money but he’s not truly amoral, that supposed killer instinct disguises something softer underneath, as though he doesn’t quite believe the things he says.
Amy Burke’s Kate is certainly a tough opponent, but despite a tacked-on feud with her mother, the character is there to have a series of arch conversations without revealing much about herself. Lin Blakley, however, makes much of the small role as Bea Sullivan, Kate’s mother and long-term assistant to Jorgy, channelling 80s female icons and delivering some very nice rebukes to Kate and Garfinkle that make you wish she had more stage time.
As a play, Other People’s Money never quite reaches the heights of similar works on the same topic, lacking the financial clarity of The Lehman Trilogy, the humanity and finely calibrated tragedy of Sweat and the sheer dastardly gall of Glengarry Glenn Ross. But this well-staged production does have things to say about the transition from a caring to a selfish society, generational divides and the loss of community that came with the rise of the stock market. Money may mean unconditional acceptance but it’s a high price to pay for the loss of everything else.
Runs until: 11 May 2019 | Image: Craig Sugden