You might not think that a 26-year-old play laden with talk of poison pills, stockholder shares and golden parachutes would make for captivating theatre.
But at the start of Jerry Sterner's 1987 play Other People's Money, buttoned-down middle manager Bill Coles (Paul Essiembre, in a less flashy performance than his turn as Col. Jessep in MTC's A Few Good Men, but one just as precise) reminds us there are stories hidden in numbers. And at the heart of those stories are people.
And what makes Other People's Money, and particularly the current production at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre Mainstage, so compelling is that it brings the people behind the abstractions of numbers and business into crystalline, if not always comfortable, focus.
The basics of the plot are familiar to anyone who's seen the 1991 film version starring Danny DeVito (a movie apparently so bad, director Ann Hodges implores the audience to forget it in her program notes). At the height of the capitalistic orgy that was 1980s America, New York corporate raider Lawrence "Larry the Liquidator" Garfinkle (Ashley Wright) sets his sights on a dying Rhode Island business. His plan is to dismantle the company and sell its components, the hundreds of workers who will lose their jobs in the process be damned.
Julia Arkos and Ashley Wright (Bruce Monk)
And so the business' aging CEO, Andrew "Jorgy" Jorgenson (Harry Nelken) and his loyal assistant Bea Sullivan (Terri Cherniack) prepare to engage in battle with Larry, aided by Bea's lawyer daughter Kate (played with great, scrappy energy by Julia Arkos). And it seems we're in for a Frank Capra-esque "David vs. Goliath" feel-good story.
And while I'm not going to say how it all ends, I will say Sterner, who was a businessman as well as a playwright, presents something considerably more complex, and considerably more engaging. Because while we know we should root for Jorgy and company, and we may not like Larry the Liquidator or what he says, Sterner makes him charming enough that we can't ignore him.
And as the story unfolds, the unsettling notion that his "greed is good" message just might have a kernel of truth begins to take hold. It's a play that succeeds by painting its story in a surprisingly deep palette of greys.
It also wins its audience over with witty, snappy dialogue, and Hodges' whip-smart production makes the most of it. She runs the play's 130 minutes at a breakneck pace, and the dialogue crackles. The five-person cast all turn in strong performances, but Wright wins the night by finding a perfect balance of likability and loathsomeness in the gluttonous, vulgar, but still surprisingly charismatic Larry.
It's not without its flaws - some of the monologues and asides are a bit too cute, and the second act occasionally gets bogged down in rhetorical speechifying. But by that point, I was sufficiently engaged by the production to stay with it.
Hodges and her design team also wisely suggest the '80s, rather than beating us over the head with period references. Brian Perchaluk's minimalist glass and metal set brings to mind those monolithic buildings where the wheels of finance, so mysterious to most of us, turn. And John Bent Jr.'s sound design is understated, subtle, and effectively disturbing at just the right moments.
Yes, there's lots of numbers and 1980s businessspeak. But behind it all are people, not so unlike us, living in a time that sounds not so different from the present day. It may be Other People's Money, but it still feels - for better and for worse - like our story.
Other People's Money runs at the RMTC John Hirsch Theatre Mainstage until May 11.