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Other People's Money may be the best revenge

Dennis Zacek directs a play with certain real-life resonances.



One of the biggest and bitterest Chicago arts stories of the last several years came out of Victory Gardens Theater, where the board got feisty with some of its most prominent employees, including Dennis Zacek and Marcelle McVay, the husband-and-wife team that ran the company for more than three decades. The full blow-by-blow would require an evening and some drinks; suffice it to say that the board made a series of decisions that alienated Zacek and McVay, arguably squeezed them out, and then—once they were gone—seemed to repudiate the things they'd stood for.

Neither McVay nor Zacek has said an untoward public word about these events; in a Reader story by Deanna Isaacs, Zacek even wished "the best" to his successor as artistic director, Chay Yew. But there are other ways to make a protest. If I had Zacek's particular talents, I might, for instance, decide to direct a play about a rich, philistine corporate raider who makes a move on a venerable old firm, figuring that he and his handpicked board can pump up profits by wrecking its traditions, closing down its core business, and throwing its longtime staff out of their jobs. I might, in short, direct Jerry Sterner's Other People's Money.

Oh, look—Zacek has directed Other People's Money.

The buccaneering businessman of Sterner's 1989 play is Larry Garfinkle (de-Judaized to "Garfield" for the movie version)—a gleefully amoral, chain-smoking doughnut junkie who revels in the gamesmanship of the hostile takeover and casually accepts the righteous indignation most decent people throw his way. He might've become a tech-nerd titan a la Mark Zuckerberg if he'd been born two or three decades later. But Garfinkle also sees himself as an agent of evolution, breaking up ossified industrial structures to free the energy—that is, money—locked inside them, so that it can subsidize new and fitter structures.

Garfinkle has determined that New England Wire & Cable is ripe for his style of Darwinian liberation. Ironically, it's NEW&C's apparent soundness that put him on its scent. With no debt, plenty of hard assets, stable leadership, some profitable subsidiaries, and an undervalued stock price, the 73-year-old Rhode Island company is a veritable metaphor for old-fashioned New England probity itself. But Garfinkle believes that technological advances have rendered the wire-and-cable business obsolete. NEW&C can't grow, in his analysis—it can only try to capture a larger share of a dying market. (Anybody in the print news business will find that part depressingly familiar.) His plan is to spin off the subsidiaries while shuttering the main factory, laying off its 1,200 employees, and selling the machinery for scrap.

He's opposed by his polar opposite, company president Andrew Jorgenson: a crusty, old, small-town, straight-arrow goy who thinks business is about people, a product is something you can hold in your hand, and leverage is what you use to get a spool of cable rolling.

Once Jorgenson realizes he's overmatched by the New York sharpie, he reluctantly accepts help from Kate, the high-powered lawyer daughter of Bea, his most loyal—and loving—employee. And that's where things get sexy. Played with what you might call wide-eyed cynicism by Abbey Smith, Kate is as ruthlessly out to win as Garfinkle is, and clearly gets the same frisson he does from a really nasty conference-room brawl. Their negotiations turn into a Taming of the Shrew-esque romantic duel, with Garfinkle doing his vulgar best to make Kate blush and Kate doing hers to make him blink. It's probably no coincidence that she's named for Shakespeare's heroine.

The comic/erotic byplay has both good and bad effects in Zacek's production for Shattered Globe Theatre. On the one hand, it's plain fun to watch—especially inasmuch as Ben Werling's Garfinkle makes such a charmingly unlikely love object, channeling Rodney Dangerfield while he courts Kate by risking a harassment suit. On the other, it tends to bland out everything around it. Andrew Hildner's set divides neatly between Jorgenson's crummy office at NEW&C and Garfinkle's posher digs in Manhattan, and the sense of vividness divides the same way, mainly because Doug McDade never achieves the combination of biblical anger and human frailty, of stiff-necked rectitude and sudden disorientation, that would make Jorgenson a dramatic as well as a moral force. As things stand, he's just kind of querulous.

Another factor working against Jorgenson is time. When Other People's Money premiered nearly a quarter century ago, the Garfinkles of the world—Carl Icahn, Michael Milken, and the rest—were reviled as monsters who destroyed businesses and lives for a quick profit. And they were. But since then we've been through scandals ranging from the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme to the Lehman Brothers failure and the worst greed-induced economic contraction since the Great Depression. By comparison, Garfinkle looks positively quaint. So, like Lucifer in Paradise Lost, he ends up coming off as the hero of the piece—which would totally screw up my intentions if I were directing this show to deliver a message about the rich philistines who did me dirt.

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