Royal George Theatre Center

At first I was offended. Maybe I should still be offended. The setup’s so classically nasty: Small-town rectitude versus big-city decadence. Old-stock work ethic versus immigrant cunning. Straight-backed, foursquare Rhode Island Yankee versus fat, greedy New York Jew.

Portia versus Shylock. Oliver Twist versus Fagin. Other People’s Money sells the sort of ethnic cliches you just don’t expect to see in public these days–not this side of David Duke and the Louisiana state legislature, anyway.

And certainly not from a play with any degree of smarts. Other People’s Money isn’t a stupid or mean-spirited piece of work. Conceptually, at least, it’s got a lot in common with The Cherry Orchard. Like Chekhov’s masterpiece, it describes a minor yet resonant moment in the annals of capitalist predation: the dissolution of a gracious but untenable old world, and its replacement by a rough, tough new one ruled by upstarts and money changers.

But where Chekhov sees the shift tragically, as part of the historic rhythm of exhaustion and renewal, Other People’s Money author Jerry Sterner frames it almost entirely in ethnic terms. In place of Madame Ranevskaya’s sweet ruin of a country estate Sterner offers us a venerable old Yankee manufacturing company called New England Wire and Cable–mainstay of its community for 73 years, run for 38 by a venerable old Yankee named Andrew Jorgenson, whose first power suit was a pair of overalls and whose business philosophy consists of pinching pennies, turning out product, and sticking by his friends.

And in place of Lopakhin–the upwardly mobile peasant who wants to subdivide the Ranevskaya property–Sterner gives us a sly, arrogant, foulmouthed, doughnut-obsessed vulgarian of a Jew named Lawrence Garfinkle. A corporate raider in the Icahn/Pickens/Boesky mode, Garfinkle homes in on New England Wire and Cable, prizing it for its weaknesses: its low stock price, its obsolete wire and cable plant, which Jorgenson supports with the profits from other divisions and carries partly out of a sense of obligation to his employees and partly because he can’t imagine life without it.

Garfinkle can very easily imagine life without it. He knows that Jorgenson’s company is worth more dead than alive, and he sets about taking it over just so he can kill it.

Garfinkle’s slime. Jewish slime. Sterner attempts to distance himself from this ugly appraisal; he inserts a note at the end of his published script, saying, “The character of Garfinkle can be played many ways. The one way he should not be played is overly, coarsely ‘ethnic.'” But who’s he fooling? Garfinkle’s lines are peppered with Yiddishisms. His big final speech includes a reference to the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. His very cadences have the interrogatory, irascible Jewish lilt I learned from my Jewish parents and still slip into when I want to say something particularly true. More to the point, Garfinkle’s actions comform neatly to ancient stereotypes: he’s the classic conniver, the clever middleman who neither grows nor bakes nor sews nor builds but takes his cut all the same.

Even his virtues conform to type. Like Shylock, Garfinkle has a strange but absolute code of honor. An outsider’s sense of integrity. However cynically he plays with others, he never lies to himself. However unprincipled he seems to others, he remains resolutely true to himself. Love him or hate him, Garfinkle is who he is.

What’s interesting here is how completely Sterner loves him. And hates him, too. A Jew and a businessman himself, Sterner projects a fervent ambivalence toward Garfinkle that becomes not merely a subtext but the unacknowledged focus of the play. Garfinkle gets more than the best lines–again, like Shylock–he gets the real power. This is almost comically obvious in the climactic scene, where Jorgenson and Garfinkle each deliver speeches at a stockholders’ meeting; though outrageously self-serving, Garfinkle’s speech is so effective that Sterner feels called upon to have another character come out and remind us what a slime Garfinkle is.

Which is why I can’t be offended by Other People’s Money. Sterner’s angry tenderness–his vast, indigested mess of feeling for Garfinkle–is too evident. This play may give out some disquieting signals, but it’s hardly anti-Semitic–or only as anti-Semitic as any Jew living in America learns to be.

I only wish Sterner could have made more conscious use of his feeling for Garfinkle, and of the painful imagery that surrounds that character. In a profile about Sterner in the New York Post, he comments that “many, if not most, of the big players in the Wall Street takeover game are Jewish. I could write another play on why that happens to be the case.” I hope he does write it, because that will be the play that Other People’s Money wants to be but isn’t.

In the meantime, we’ve got a terrific production of the play it is. Peter Van Wagner is a perfect Garfinkle: absolute charm and absolute gross-out repulsion in a single, corpulent body. Very much to his credit, Edgar Meyer never tries to make Jorgenson’s crustiness endearing, or bring out an oozy-warm interior–choosing, instead, to show us the layers and layers of crust inside. Richard Henzel, meanwhile, is creepily bland as a Machiavelli in gray flannel.

Elizabeth Hess seems a little lost, however, as Kate, the shiksa love interest. Despite a tendency to get worked up for no apparent reason, she can’t seem to manifest the drive people say she’s got. David Budries’s rock-industrial sound design, on the other hand, has plenty of drive for everyone.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Sutton.