A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Donald Trump said, “‘Other People’s Money’ is an extraordinarily insightful, timely and witty play.” Yes, that is an actual quote from the new President-elect, who saw this play when it first opened in New York in 1989. The producers of this revival at the Pico Playhouse somehow dug up this quote and now use it, along with the tagline “Making Theater Great Again” in their promotional material. While it may not be “great” theater, it is good theater and a lot of fun — particularly as a time machine whisking us back to the New York of wide-shouldered suits, chrome furniture and big poufy hair (remember how Donald’s ex Ivana looked back then?).

The backstory of “Other People’s Money” is notable. Playwright Jerry Sterner was a token clerk in the New York subways, working the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. graveyard shift. Over the course of nearly six years in the booth, he wrote seven plays, including this one. His idea for the play came from an investment he made in the stock of a company that produced nuts and bolts that had been around for many years. After a corporate raider bought the company out, which doubled his investment, Sterner wondered about the company and decided to drive up to New England to visit the company’s former headquarters. The once-thriving business had been closed down for a tax write-off and the town had become like a ghost town. Stunned, Sterner began grappling with questions about the morality of such maneuvers, which became the core idea for the play.

With equal helpings of comedy and pathos, the play had a successful run Off-Broadway and was soon made into a film starring Danny Devito as the crass corporate raider Larry “the liquidator” Garfinkle. While it would be difficult to improve upon Devito’s version of that odious shark, I have to admit that I like Rob Adler in the role very much. He too presents as short, pushy and obnoxious and has a sharp comic presence. The four other characters include Jorgenson, the flummoxed, weasley company president (Peter Michael McDonald), the semi-retired owner/chairman (Kent Minault, who reminds me very much of character actor Keenan Wynn), his longtime assistant (D. J. Harner) and her lawyer daughter (Alexandra Wright) who is enlisted to do battle with Garfinkle. The play is double cast with five other actors, so you’re likely to get a unique combination on any given night.

The action rotates between two desks on either side of the stage: one utilitarian, belonging to the chairman in his Rhode Island headquarters, the other sleek and modern, belonging to Garfinkle in his Manhattan office tower. If you hadn’t guessed it from the fashions, the names and places bandied about in dialogue will clue you in that we are experiencing a very particular time and place. The besieged managers talk about “greenmail” and “poison pills,” while Garfinkle alludes to public figures like Ivan Boesky. It almost seems surprising we don’t hear Trump’s name thrown out, although his M.O. was always more about (ahem) erecting than dismantling.

While the characters joust and pivot for control of the company, Director Oliver Muirhead emphasizes the uneven power balances that exist within each set of relationships. We see one dynamic between owner and manager, another between manager and employee, another between mother and daughter, yet another between hunter and hunted. On top of that, there are also sexual dynamics to take into account in two of the pairs.

On the debit side of the ledger, there is no sense of apotheosis at the end, no profound flash of wisdom. The end result of these shenanigans is not much more than a shrug and tacit acceptance of the new normal, something that we all simply have to get used to (although it seems ironic that nobody these days talks about hostile takeovers or greenmail anymore). There is also the distraction that none are able to produce a reasonably accurate facsimile of a proper Rhode Island or Brooklyn accent, although some try.

But these are small quibbles for what is an entertaining show that is well acted and dramatically propulsive. All they need is some Duran Duran on the sound system to complete the period magic. Then this could be YUUUGGGGEEEE.

—David Maurer, Culture Spot LA

“Other People’s Money” continues at the Pico Playhouse through Dec. 18. Pico Playhouse is located at 10508 W. Pico Blvd., LA 90064. For more information and reservations: (818) 765-8732 or  http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2588643.