It's difficult to watch director Dennis Zacek's staging of "Other People's Money" for Shattered Globe Theatre without thinking about the director's own well-publicized disputes with the board of Victory Gardens Theater, where he served as artistic director for 34 years while his wife, Marcelle McVay, worked beside him as managing director.
True, the loss of a struggling, locally owned manufacturing company to a Wall Street liquidator doesn't really compare to the loss of the playwrights' ensemble Zacek put together at Victory Gardens after Chay Yew took the reins in 2011. For one thing, unlike the unseen working stiffs in Jerry Sterner's 1989 script, none of Zacek's playwrights depended on Victory Gardens for their livelihood.
Yet what comes through most effectively in Zacek's solid revival is the quaint notion of loyalty to one's workers as an extended family — and sure, the investment of ego in what you've built up before upstart bean counters started asking questions about diminishing revenues in the face of new technology. Not that anyone who works in the newspaper world could possibly relate to such scenarios, of course. (Ahem.)
And not that Lawrence Garfinkle cares.
Lawrence is a go-go 1980s Wall Street wheeler-dealer drunk on the possibilities of making quick returns by killing the companies whose stock he takes over. In Ben Werling's stellar and expansive performance, Lawrence so obviously relishes what he does that the phrase "hostile takeover" feels wrong. He's not hostile — he's a happy warrior for the new order of financial dealing. As Lawrence puts it, "It's legal, it's exciting, and it's fun." If Mitt Romney had half of this guy's joie de vivre, he might have won last fall.
Caught in his crosshairs is New England Wire and Cable, an old-time enterprise run by Andrew "Jorgie" Jorgenson (Doug McDade) and his longtime assistant/mistress Bea Sullivan (Linda Reiter). They've managed to survive by not incurring huge debt, keeping their nose to the grindstone, and retaining optimism that building stuff is of higher value in American business than tearing it down. In other words — they're suckers. And Lawrence, to his partial credit, tries to warn them about what he's going to do from the first meeting.
So does Kate Sullivan (Abbey Smith), Bea's corporate-attorney daughter whose sensibilities seem more in line with Lawrence's, but who agrees to fight him in court as part of a not-entirely-convincing foreplay. Smith has the same fresh-faced-schoolgirl-in-corporate-mufti appeal of Anna Kendrick in "Up in the Air," but what's lacking at this point is a sense that her immunity to Lawrence's crude charms could fail at any moment.
Nor does McDade's Jorgie seem fully invested — no pun intended — in his company; rather, his rejection of all that Kate suggests comes across at least initially as pettishness. (Though McDade recovers nicely in his passionate second-act speech where he pleads for his company's life to the stockholders.)
Fortunately, Reiter's tart-but-loving turn as Bea makes clear that this corporate wife isn't going down without a fight. The cipher in the script and onstage remains Joseph Wiens' William Coles, a long-suffering factotum to Jorgie who makes an 11th-hour switch to Team Garfinkle.
Though the wheels on the story turn slowly at first (the direct-address interludes tend to feel like narrative padding), by the second act Sterner's script and Zacek's staging find an absorbing balance and tension. Sure, we know that Lawrence will win. The depressing thought is that what came after him — CDOs, MBSs, and the rest of the toxic alphabet soup that led to the 2008 crash — was even worse. "Other People's Money," however quaint its references to Carl Icahn and Ivan Boesky may seem, remains relevant. As Lawrence presciently notes, "All they do is change the rules. They can't stop the game."
When: Through Oct. 19
Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $30 at 773-975-8150 or theaterwit.org