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Financial tale offers low return on emotions

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The deal in Other People's Money is that a feared New York corporate raider is attempting a hostile takeover of a New England wire and cable company run by a decent, hard-nosed chief executive.

The Jerry Sterner business drama, which closes the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's 2012-13 season, artfully creates the clash of values between the old and new business worlds that were philosophically and financially at war in the greed-is-good 1980s and are still today. Sterner makes you choose sides during a concluding shareholders meeting where both the repellent Larry the Liquidator Garfinkle and the grandpa-like Andrew Jorgenson make their impassioned pitches to determine who will win control of the company.

The speeches are maddeningly persuasive as they outline how to run a business. Jorgenson, who could have walked out of an inspirational Frank Capra film, gives a rousing talk about his people-first business model, his disdain for the Garfinkles of the world who become obscenely wealthy by doing nothing but play God with other people's money and his unshakable faith in a his company's imminent turnaround. Jorgenson could be talking about Mitt Romney, the defeated Republican presidential candidate, who got rich buying, selling, flipping and stripping businesses, making him a poster boy for the heads-I-win, tails-you-lose business practices of the '80s.

Then the supposed villain, Garfinkle, steps to the podium, confidently grabs the microphone and obliterates Jorgenson's sentimental arguments by saying the undervalued company is obsolete, that he is responsible to the shareholders who have trusted him with their money and that capitalism only allows for the survival of the fittest.

The vote is recorded and when the result is announced there are many abstentions, which would also be the choice of many in the RMTC audience. None of the characters are likable, which makes it difficult to buy into Other People's Money. Who wants to get warm and fuzzy about another soulless Wall Street shark?

So who is there to root for? Fat-cat Garfinkle earns some grudging respect, despite his abrasive personality, for being a straight-shooting, self-described "modern-day gunslinger." He makes no excuses for his voracious appetite for gobbling up troubled companies and doughnuts, which suggest a hole where his heart should be.

But the intransigent Jorgenson, who represents small-town values and ethical management, is guilty of benign neglect, which has put his family company and its 1,200 workers at risk from take-no-prisoners, takeover artists. He refuses to listen to the suggestions as to how to ward off Garfinkle's advances made by his second-in command, William Coles, or his corporate lawyer, Kate Sullivan, daughter of Jorgenson's companion, Bea. That he believes that his long-time shareholders are driven by loyalty more than money shows how out of date he is with the world.

The uneventful first act is dominated by Garfinkle's manoeuvring and talk of 13-D forms, green mail and poison pills and takes a while to drum up interest. The action moves back and forth between Jorgenson's homey office and Garfinkle's ultra-modern lair with its image of the famous Wall Street bull, which aptly symbolizes his personal style.

Brian Perchaluk's sleek set is dominated by five office towers that keep the two-hour negotiation session moving briskly. Director Ann Hodges has assembled a first-rate cast headed by Ashley Wright who gives a forceful performance as Garfinkle, who is a boor and corporate bully but makes a lot of sense. He smiles and sweats and charms with his plain talk.

Garfinkle is after the company but also the girl, the fiery Kate, who is initially keen to battle such a formidable foe. Their wheeling-and-dealing turns into a weird courtship, involving turning each other on with new business proposals and sexy double entendres. Julia Arkos is fearless as her Kate relishes the parry-and-thrust of "the game" with this unlikely soulmate.

If the audience had also been asked to vote about the Larry-Kate hook-up, most would surely have been against it.

Playing Jorgenson was Winnipeg's Harry Nelkin, who was very believable in his Jimmy Stewart role as protector of the his workers and community. Bea is his long-time companion, and like everyone in the play, grapples with selling her soul to get what she wants. Terri Cherniack brings a dignity to her portrayal of Bea but shows she can get down and dirty, too.

Paul Essiembre plays Coles in an immaculate three-piece business suit but effectively allows his bottom-line-instincts to show through.

Other People's Money is an entertaining cautionary tale about the cutthroat world of modern finance but offers only a fair return on the emotional investment of the audience.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 20, 2013 G4

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