The latest Florida Studio Theatre mainstage production is laugh-out-loud funny, though its topic is no laughing matter.
The 1980s was a volatile time of creative destruction for American business. Jerry Sterner’s “Other People’s Money” explores the collateral damage of that era. It’s a laugh-out-loud comedy — and dead serious at the same time.
The New England Wire & Cable Co. is doing great and has zero debt. In the late 1980s, that makes it a target. A Wall Street shark smells blood in the water. His business card says Lawrence Garfinkle. But “Larry the Liquidator” (Sam Mossler) is his charming nickname. And he lives up to it.
Larry plans to take over the company, strip it and sell it for parts. He’ll sell the land, the factory and the inventory. That’ll put 10,000 people out of work, but hey, that’s business. The firm’s worth more dead than alive. And that’s the bottom line. But Larry needs a controlling interest before he can take a bite out of the company. He’s been quietly buying up shares to do just that. One fine day, he drops in on the old New England firm — and starts sniffing around and asking pointed questions.
Andrew “Jorgy” Jorgenson (Colin Lane) is the affable owner. He’s the son of the firm’s founder — a family business since the Truman era. But he gets no respect. Cable isn’t sexy, and he’s never been on the cover of Forbes. He’s flattered at the attention of a Wall Street big shot.
Bill Coles (Joe Ditmyer) is next in line to run the company, and he knows exactly what Larry’s up to. They call in Kate (Nehassaiu DeGannes), a hotshot young lawyer who happens to be the daughter of Jorgy’s self-sacrificing assistant, Bea (Perri Gaffney). In a series of meetings, she goes head to head with Larry. They circle each other like two pit bulls barring teeth. Kate does her best to avoid the sexual tension. Larry doesn’t.
The decision is ultimately made at the shareholders meeting. Jorgy makes a stirring speech out of a Frank Capra movie. “I know that people’s lives are more important than money. I know you’re going to do the right thing.” Larry points out that making more money is always the right thing. If he wins, the shareholders will do just that.
It’s a funny play, though its topic is no laughing matter. Director Jason Cannon goes for the laughs without glossing over the harsh realities or falling into a sitcom rhythm. The play’s also full of financial inside-baseball. Cannon keeps it lucid, without getting bogged down.
Lane’s Jorgy is an industrial age dinosaur — a nice guy destined to finish last. Lane nicely evokes his warm, gruff, character, but he could put more Alpha Dog bite into it. He rallies his forces in his moving speech at the shareholders meeting. Lane needs to show more of that energy throughout his portrayal. Perri Gaffney’s Bea is a mix of loyalty and repression. She’s both Jorgy’s unmarried lover and assistant — and draws no line between the two. She’s a dinosaur as well — a pre-liberated woman who puts her life on hold and stands by her man.
The play’s bad guy is by far its most interesting character. Mossler delivers a boisterous, foul-mouthed portrayal worthy of James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. His character’s charismatic and not remotely a nice guy. The loves of Larry’s life are donuts, sexual harassment, other people’s money and himself. Ethics? Not so much. Nehassaiu DeGannes’s Kate is clearly Larry’s match—she brings true grit to her spitfire performance. Her Kate plays rough, but she’s a good person and a damn good lawyer. Ditmyer’s Bill also seems like a nice guy—until he loses his nerve in a quiet betrayal.
This financial fracas unfolds with Susan Angermann’s pitch-perfect costumes — dress-for-success upscale for the corporate raiders and lawyers; off the rack and rumpled for the old-school factory types. Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay’s set cleverly lays out the chasm of class and power — a shabby, factory office on stage right; a shiny, upscale corporate haven on stage left.
Sound designer Thom Korp punctuates the action with snippets of ’80s pop hits by A-ha, Huey Lewis and Michael Jackson, of course.
“Other People’s Money” explores one of the last battles in American industry’s fight for survival. Today, those battles are largely over. Most of our factories have moved to China, Malaysia, Mexico, or wherever; the few remaining factories have replaced most of their line workers with robots. The war is over. And American industry lost.
This slice of recent history will keep you laughing. And remind you of what we’ve lost.