Business Ethics, an Oxymoron?

Preview of Other People’s Money, Long Wharf Theatre

When I spoke to Steve Routman, who plays Coles in the Long Wharf’s upcoming production of Jerry Sterner’s Other People’s Money, the election hadn’t happened yet, but was impending. That fact colored somewhat our chat about the play, which features the efforts of a corporate raider, Larry “The Liquidator” Garfinkle, played by Jordan Lage (last at Long Wharf in Ride the Tiger), to buy up New England Wire and Cable. Garfinkel’s scheme conflicts with two other interested parties: the factory owner Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland) and Coles, the owner of the company. As Routman puts it, the three characters, “each selfish in their own way,” are “trying to navigate different possibilities of capitalism,” and that gives the show its main theme.

As Routman sees it, Jorgenson represents the past and a focus on a business model that was passing away when the play first appeared in the late 1980s; Coles, somewhat “judicious” in Routman’s view, is “considering the long term” and what kinds of economic opportunities will be available for future generations. Between the two, Garfinkle is a fast-and-loose conniver who lives in “the now,” trying to make a score to plump up his portfolio. In taking us back to the days when the ostensible president-elect was a hot young wheeler-dealer in real estate investment, the play “still feels current,” though some of its references “are ripped from the headlines” of the time. Garfinkle is “not Trump”—either then or now—Routman stresses, but we may see some similarities: the charisma, the misogyny, the emphasis on making money that all seems to go with the territory.

Steve Routman is a familiar face at Long Wharf. In my years covering plays there, he has added richly realized supporting roles to three shows, all directed by Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein. Probably Routman's most memorable role was as Cohen in Steve Martin’s The Underpants where he got to display his comic, slapstick abilities. In the Long Wharf’s updating of Our Town, he played Professor Willard, and, in The Second Mrs. Wilson, Routman brought a bristling irony to the role of Thomas Marshall, Wilson’s Vice President who found himself out of the loop when the president became ill.

 Steve Routman as Thomas Marshall in The Second Mrs. Wilson (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Steve Routman as Thomas Marshall in The Second Mrs. Wilson (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Routman, a Connecticut resident, is “extremely grateful” to Edelstein for regularly finding roles for him to play. With a 4-year old child, Routman is glad not to have to spend long months away. He feels like “a member of the [Long Wharf] family. For the bulk of my career I played in regional theater all around the country,” but his first equity job, back in 1985, happened to be at Hartford Stage. So Connecticut, which “has more regional theater than most states,” has been good for him with many “likeable” roles and venues.

Since I tend to think of Routman in comic turns, as in The Underpants and to some extent The Second Mrs. Wilson, I asked about his preference in roles. He loves comedy and “the challenge of the technical aspect of comedy,” but is glad to have played a variety of roles to show his range, including Chekhov, and film and TV roles. He referred to the great opportunity for The Underpants, in moving from Long Wharf to a later run at Hartford Stage, to perfect its timing and staging. “It grew tremendously,” he said, as finding what's funny can require trial and error in front of audiences.

 Steve Routman as Cohen in The Underpants (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Steve Routman as Cohen in The Underpants (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

While there is humor in Other People’s Money, Routman said, the actors and director Marc Bruni “are still finding it.” The play is “not pure drama, nor comedy.” It’s “darker than the movie” version, starring Danny DeVito, that came out in the 1980s. Though Routman hasn’t seen a production of the play, he was aware of it having “a regional life” in the early ‘90s, with its single set and strong five character cast—another key role is that of a female lawyer, Kate (Liv Rooth), who must decide how to meet the challenge of Garfinkle.

Coles’ appeal as a character, Routman said, is in his “complexity. He seems to have a good heart and wants the best, even while looking out for himself.” Routman sees him as “the voice of reason to some extent.” For Routman, much of what is at stake in the play is a question of values: The difference between business as a way of life that makes products of value, or as simply a way to “make a killing” in some market, then move on. With such a clash, Routman said, “there’s no way to not see today in this play,” and he “looks forward to seeing what the audience finds in it.”

With the country experiencing the change that comes from moving to a Republican administration after eight years of a Democratic president, it’s timely enough to revisit an earlier Republican era. Sterner, who died in 2001, wrote the play after seeing what happened to a company, whose stock he sold to a corporate raider, and to the surrounding community after the company was sold off and closed down.

Other People’s Money runs from November 23 to December 18, with a press opening on November 30. Tickets start at $29. www.longwharf.org

Long Wharf Theatre
Other People’s Money
By Jerry Sterner
Directed by Marc Bruni