Garfinkel and Kate are going to name their twins Bull and Bear. The line may be tongue-in-cheek, but it’s symptomatic of their times--and the bitter humor of Jerry Sterner’s very serious comedy “Other People’s Money,” opening Saturday at the Old Globe Theatre’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage. It’s also symptomatic that the playwright says their relationship is “no love story, it’s a seduction.”
Kate is a fiery, idealistic attorney fighting the takeover of her family’s venerable but failing company by a Wall Street operator. The seduction is not physical. It’s one of ideals--Kate’s ideals of how things ought to be. She learns from Garfinkel that times have changed, and that to survive she has to move with the current.
Sterner has spent his life on Wall Street and knows the territory. When he decided to get out of the financial whirlpool eight years ago, at the age of 44, and become a playwright, he knew what he wanted to say about the people who operate with other people’s money.
He’s convinced that “we’re in for some very difficult times. We’re the only generation that has deliberately made it worse for our children than we had it for ourselves. Every other generation has always sacrificed to make it better for the next generation. We have mortgaged the next several generations to make it better for ourselves. As a government, as corporate America and as individuals, we’re up to our eyeballs in debt.
“We had a grand party in the 1980s,” he says, “and we will pay for that party--and worse yet, our children and our children’s children will probably pay for that party.”
Milton Katselas, the director guiding the Old Globe production, agrees, but thinks Garfinkel’s philosophy has been around a long time. He remembers when “you did business on a handshake, and there was a certain kind of etiquette, a certain kind of ethics. It’s a different ballgame now.” But he also believes that “we can’t hold this country up as this great ethical thing. I understand Jerry’s concern. The mortgage part is new, but the rest of it has been with us from the get-go. Twenty-four dollars for Manhattan Island is not exactly a fair deal.”
Before moving the company to San Diego just after Christmas, Los Angeles resident Katselas began rehearsals for the San Diego production in the same small Los Angeles theater where his acclaimed and long-running “Romeo and Juliet” played several years ago. This is the first property he’s been interested in directing since then. Jerry “is telling us the way it is, and yet it’s got a point of view that maybe all of us have wanted to utter at one time or another on both sides of the fence. Jerry has taken a subject and given both sides their due, and, in the end, you’ve got to make your choice.
“The play’s important above and beyond the coterie of people who really know the ‘deal,’ because this is a choice we’re now being faced with, a new economic structure and a new way of looking at things. There’s all this stuff going on about ethics in business. It’s very current, it’s right now. It’s in the news.”
Katselas smiles. “The other thing about it is, it’s funny. “
Surprisingly, the “coterie of people who really know the ‘deal’ ” actually were the very audience that first turned Sterner’s play into an off-Broadway hit, still running at New York’s Minetta Lane Theatre. For months, tiny, block-long Minetta Lane was lined every night with chauffeur-driven limos.
“Limos! Limos!” laughs the playwright. “It’s where the play found its initial audience, essentially non-theatergoers. They might go once a year on a benefit because their wife schlepped them, you know, to see ‘Phantom’ with this pained look on their faces.”
The play found a Wall Street audience, he says, “because it’s about deals that these guys have done.” Then it began to attract other areas of the business world, finally found its fans in more general audiences because of its humor and its human concerns.
Even the play’s purported villain is ultimately human. In most plays and films, Sterner says, “businessman are portrayed in stereotyped ways as being just malicious, greedy, soulless people who’d sell their mother for a quarter. Garfinkel is not like that. Yeah, he’s interested in money, but he’s got a point of view. He comes on like he’s the villain, but in the end we must question ourselves--there’s a little bit of Garfinkel in all of us. That’s what the audience suddenly catches on to.”
Even the financial wizards who made the play a success sometimes catch on. “They feel their own position is vindicated,” Sterner said, “but they do have misgivings as they watch it. I’ve had investment bankers say to me, ‘We never related to the idea that people actually get hurt here.’ They don’t have to go out and say to a factory worker, ‘Listen, I’m sorry, mac, but I’m going to have to let you go, we’re closing this plant.’ In the play, maybe for the first time, they do see the effect of what does happen. People have said to me, ‘You’ve made it harder to do what we have to do.’ But it doesn’t stop ‘em from doing it.”
Now 52, Jerry Sterner has definitely left Wall Street behind and settled into being a writer. The film version of “Other People’s Money” is being filmed (with Danny DeVito as Garfinkel and Penelope Ann Miller as Kate), Sterner is developing a television series about Wall Street with Ron Howard’s production company, and he’s agreed to write the book for a musical about politics.
Most avidly interested in writing for live theater, he’s concerned neither with his late start nor a playwright’s low return. “My heart’s in the theater, and I don’t need the money. There are a lot of disadvantages to becoming a playwright at 44, but the one advantage, which overshadows all the dis advantages, is you have something to write about. You’ve lived a life, you’ve experienced things--most kids are writing plays about kids writing plays. Who wants to see that? Maybe their mothers.”