Jordan Lage

Winner Take All

Review of Other People’s Money, Long Wharf Theatre

The sign of a good play is that viewers can read different things into it at different times, and directors can find new relevance in it. Jerry Sterner’s Other People’s Money, at Long Wharf, directed with sharp transitions by Marc Bruni, could easily seem a trip back to the late 1980s when business liquidators were an up-and-coming breed, “mergers and acquisition” became practically a household phrase, and old production standbys like automobile manufacture became ailing dinosaurs of the corporate world. While the period aspect of the play is still very much prevalent, it’s hard to watch the play in 2016 and not think of the recent election. Allegory may be in the eye of the beholder, but I think not.

We’ve got Wire and Cable, an all-American company that cares about its employees and their families, owned by Mr. Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland), a conscientious and somewhat loquacious elder who admires Harry Truman and treats the business like family. He’s got a very loyal assistant, Bea (Karen Ziemba), who sees no divide between work and her personal life. Both are dedicated to “the American Dream” as a solvent business that makes a good product and provides decent lives for all involved, debt-free. They don’t even have any outstanding fines with Environmental Protection. The manager, Coles (Steve Routman), is a canny heir apparent, serving his time until the old man steps down and he can take over and modernize a bit.

Garfinkle (Jordan Lage), Kate (Liv Rooth) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Garfinkle (Jordan Lage), Kate (Liv Rooth) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Into their cozy little world comes crass, big league player Garfinkle (Jordan Lage), a self-satisfied man of business who exists to make money, legally. He’s rapacious, avaricious, and even charming in a cold-blooded way. He’s buying up shares not because he wants Wire and Cable to make him money as a satisfied stockholder, but because he wants to gut the still breathing carcass and make his money off its dismemberment. The only person who might figure out a way to stop him is a blonde female lawyer, Kate (Liv Rooth), Bea’s daughter, who dresses sharply and is tough-as-nails, and who is more than equal to any “grab ‘em by the pussy” innuendo that might come her way. In an amusing sequence, she gets Garfinkle to grab his own crotch and give it a stern talking to.

What’s at stake? Well, if you’ve been wondering what it means to put the fox in the henhouse, by democratic consent, then this play might be the kind of entertainment to light your day. It shows us how vulnerable are core values—like loyalty and dedication—in the face of the almighty buck and the historical inevitability. A world where naked self-interest makes the wheels go round, and the devil take the hindmost. And, though Wire and Cable is in Rhode Island, we’re watching the predatory tactics that helped destroy jobs in the dissatisfied Rust Belt.

In Bruni’s taut direction, the play is even better than the script, and that’s because his crackerjack cast has a sense of the pace of TV drama, say, The Good Wife. There are still speeches that fall a little short of crisp, and the second act has too many scenes and way too much speechifying, but this cast does all it can to sell it. And the set by Lee Savage makes it all feel real.

Bea (Karen Ziemba), Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland), Garfinkle (Jordan Lage) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Bea (Karen Ziemba), Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland), Garfinkle (Jordan Lage) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

As Garfinkle, Lage is no doubt way better-looking than Sterner envisioned—the script seems to call for a bit of a donut-popping schlub, maybe even with a bad toupe—but he plays the part with a kind of greased ease that recalls, at times, Pacino as Roy Cohn. Garfinkle is never quite that foul, but he tries. And he gets to comment, in a winning, “get a load of this” way, on the other team’s efforts to undermine his intentions (it’s almost like he’s hacking their strategy). Lage plays large, but there are lots of nice touches, as when he first takes in and sums up in a glance the proud but unpretty site and Jorgenson’s sentimental grasp of business.

Hyland is quite good as Jorgenson, giving the head man a very lived-in feel. He seems sort of doddering but can lead when his back’s to the wall. It’s clear that Sterner wants us to feel something more is at stake than a “seen better days” business, and Hyland makes us feel the heat of the man who watches what little legacy he had go under.

Kate (Liv Rooth) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Kate (Liv Rooth) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Best of all may be Rooth, who acts the hell out of Kate. It’s a role that requires considerable presence of mind as Kate plays the pressured go-between, trying to outsmart Garfinkle, while shamelessly flirting with him, and trying to get Jorgenson to fight for his life with strategy, even if it means going low when the other side goes low.

The scene where Kate gives the other three the what’s-what on how to survive—with “shark repellent” and “poison”—is a masterful riff on how the system can be worked to advantage. Typically, the good guys think of themselves as too good to think of even playing at bad. And then there’s the possibility that, good or not, some will sink the ship to save themselves.

Garfinkle (Jordan Lage), Coles (Steve Routman) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Garfinkle (Jordan Lage), Coles (Steve Routman) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Coles gets the first and last word, and Routman plays it with the clear sense of a man who never takes his eye off the balance sheet, managing to humanize the pro who supports a thing not because it’s right or better than another thing, but because he’s paid to. Ziemba’s Bea is the other side of the coin; she supports Jorgenson, not because he’s right, nor because she’s paid to, but because she loves him, giving a venerable veneer to the office romance.

Sterner draws the lines of attack and retaliate very carefully for all the characters and it’s a treat to see them treated to such well-crafted performances. Sure, it’s fun to spend other people’s money, and it’s also fun to spend time with Other People’s Money.

So, what d’ya think of that payoff?

Bea (Karen Ziemba), Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Bea (Karen Ziemba), Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)


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

Set Design: Lee Savage; Costume Design: Anita Yavich; Lighting Design: David Lander; Sound Design: Brian Ronan; Production Stage Manager: Peter Wolf; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting by Calleri Casting; Assistant Director/Drama League Directing Fellow: Jesca Prudencio

Cast: Edward James Hyland; Jordan Lage; Liv Rooth; Steve Routman; Karen Ziemba

Long Wharf Theatre
November 23-December 18, 2016

A Tiger by the Tail

I grew up in a household where John F. Kennedy was more or less a sainted martyr, and where Frank Sinatra—when he was with Tommy Dorsey—was looked upon as the soundtrack of my parents’ romantic years.  And where The Godfather was appreciated as a kind of all-American story of every immigrant family’s need to band together in the face of prejudice from the larger community.  My parents weren’t Italian or Irish (ok, a little), but they were Catholic, and so, from the start, I was prepared to be entertained by a play—William Mastrosimone’s Ride the Tiger, now playing at the Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Gordon Edelstein—that brings together JFK, Frankie, and the Mob.  I might also mention that the play begins in the year of my birth. I might also suggest that the play will probably strike a chord even with audiences who don’t have the fond regard for these figures and their era that I inherited—the early, pre-Beatles Sixties got a big spike in popularity after Mad Men debuted, and the romance of the era seems not to have faded quite yet.  Perhaps that’s one of the “tigers” Mastrosimone is intentionally riding.  And you could, y’know, take that more than one way.  As used in the play, the phrase indicates those dangerous pacts we make in order to get somewhere—running the risk of not being able to direct things for long.  This is a play all about deals made and expectations betrayed.  As such, it rides the tiger of a certain romance of America that some of us claim as our birthright.  Can we climb down off that tiger without getting hurt?  And if the tiger we’re riding is our own sense of historical necessity?

The play has much to recommend it: Eugene Lee uses a loose and easily adaptable set that can be the Oval office one minute and a poolside lounge another; there’s a bed to cavort in, a car drives onto the stage, and there are backdrop projections of Vegas, the White House and even a doctored “Mount Rushmore” of presidential portraits (sneaking in “the other Roosevelt,” kinda roguishly).  Jess Goldstein’s costumes are for the most part lounge lizard casual, with Christina Bennett Lind, as Judy (the main female role), boasting the kind of form-fitting dresses that made girdles a necessary evil of the era for many.  The action is episodic—letting us feel like voyeurs, eavesdroppers or bugs able to soak up conversations and encounters that go by terms like “clandestine,” “hush-hush,” “behind the scenes,” and “entre nous.”  The fact that every major character here—except Judy—is (or was) a household name makes it all delicious dirt.

Edelstein trusts the material and lets the talk run the show with little gimmickry.  We’ve got Joe (John Cunningham), very patrician as the Bostonian Irish patriarch trying to launch a political dynasty.  Cunningham is quite adept at registering both the steely convictions of the man as well as the fact that, face it, he’s mostly past his prime.  It’s all riding on second son Jack (Douglas Sills), a war hero and ladies’ man trying hard to do what must be done.  Sills nails some lines with the familiar Kennedy delivery but his character is somewhat underwritten in the early going; he comes off better in the second half where he makes Jack’s rage both frightened and fearsome and lets us see Jack try vainly to be winning via the famed Kennedy wit while being an obvious asshole.

Then there’s Jack’s pal, Frank (Paul Anthony Stewart), the Italian singing sensation from Hoboken who is a key linchpin: he gets Joe cozy with Chicago Cosa Nostra via a political favor involving the Mob’s control of Unions, and he introduces Jack to Judy, the play’s resident femme fatale, who Frankie ditches in a scene Stewart makes redolent of Rat Pack chutzpah.  Things are pretty hunky dory until the main Mob guy, Sam (Jordan Lage), takes a shine to Judy, and, eventually, tires of the high hat he’s handed by Jack and his brother Bobby (aka “the Weasel”) once the White House is gained and favors from unsavory types are best forgotten.  Someone’s cruising for a bruising, and let’s just say no one gets out of this thing unscathed.

The real stunner in this line-up is Lage as Sam: he’s a charming ladies’ man, an unstoppable font of chat, a barrage of little tics and moves, and, when it’s time for the eyes to go icy dead, Lage is your boy.  We’ve all seen (I imagine) this kind of Wise Guy in any number of films about Chicago gangsters, but Lage’s Sam is also very much a creature of this moment: Ol’ Blue Eyes is back, a Catholic boy is gonna be president, and Khrushchev is in for a big surprise.  For Sam, who reads newspapers religiously, the only thing that could make the world sweeter is if Castro would get a fatal calling card.  It’s an entertaining and thrilling portrayal.

Another strength is Lind’s Judy—she harkens to that era when a girl with a head on her shoulders might not get a professional post, but, with enough looks and je ne sais quoi, might manage to position herself in an exciting, and exhausting and, finally, frightening triangle with two extremely powerful and headstrong men.  Judy bounces along from Frank to Jack to Jack and Sam to a paranoid funk, finally losing those can-do “high hopes” so important to an It Girl’s self-esteem.  The best part of the play are the overlaps when Judy goes back and forth between Jack and Sam as the two duel verbally through messages she must deliver.  The late scene of her breakdown seems a bit thin—which is true of her character all along, but you don’t notice so much until she’s given a scene that seems to scream for a revealing statement.  Instead we get revealing nudity.

As a meditation on figures of American romance gazed upon for their history-making status and larger-than-life pretensions—Politicians! Entertainers! Gangsters!—Ride the Tiger mixes up a potent cocktail, though you’ll be stirred more than shaken.  The play is not playing it all for laughs so much as laughing up its sleeve. Mastrosimone cleverly cherry-picks the historical record to slant the action toward its conclusion—which arrives as both a laugh and a shock.  It’s surprising—in its execution—and inevitable in its action, which makes it a satisfying note to end on.  Everyone in this play has a one-way date with destiny and Mastrosimone gets a lot of mileage out of that tiger and this wild ride.


Ride the Tiger By William Mastrosimone Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Eugene Lee; Costume Design: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau; Original Music and Sound Design: Ryan Rumery; Projection Design: Sven Ortel; Wig Design: Charles Lapointe; Casting: James Calleri, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Lisa Ann Chernoff; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern

Photos by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of the Long Wharf Theatre

Long Wharf Theatre March 27-April 21, 2013