Jerry Sterner: Playwright, Capitalist
PLAYWRIGHT Jerry Sterner is a capitalist and proud of it. But among audiences who see his play "Other People's Money" (and the new film based on the play) are those who see it as a manifesto for the destruction of capitalism, while others see it as an apologia for Wall Street.Sterner was a businessman before turning playwright abruptly in 1986. "I couldn't write a novel," he said in a recent interview, "because I can't describe how grass feels beneath my feet. But I know how people talk and I know the business world." With an unknown cast and director, a first-time playwright and first-time producer, "Other People's Money" became a long-running off-Broadway hit. But what put it over the top was the fact that businesspeople came and saw the play, Sterner says. "They loved it. Most times when you go to the theater in New York, there are more women than men, because most plays are intimate journeys of self-revelation ending with some kind of insight. We men fall asleep at that," Sterner says. Other People's Money' is an honest play concerning deals these [business]men have done. All the lawyers, brokerage houses, IBM, Wall Street loved it. They like seeing their world finally captured in an entertaining way. "Most businessmen are portrayed as the most contemptible jerks," Sterner continues, "or bumbling incompetents who couldn't get dressed in the morning.... And I know that that's not true. Running a company of 100 people with different personalities, needs, everything, getting them to focus in one direction and make money at the end of the month, is at least as creative as writing a play." "Other People's Money" concerns hostile takeovers and the men who manage them. On one side is the pirate Garfinkle, on the other is Jorgenson, the upright owner of a thriving company. Sterner says the story is based on a real event that caused him to question certain business practices. Early in the Reagan years, he says, he bought stock in a nuts-and-bolts company. "Most people bought chickentronics [fast-food stock] or high tech," he explained. "But here was a company that in the worst of times was making money, that had a good product, that had a great balance sheet. Before I invest I go see what I'm investing in.... In 1985 electronics had tripled, but the stock I'd bought at $11 was selling at $9 a share. I was so upset.... Next day a corporate predator made an offer at $18 a share. I didn't think twice, I took the money and ran." But a year later he vacationed near Grand Rapids, Mich. with his family and decided to visit the company he had once invested in. The town was a ghost town - the restaurant and shops were closed. A thriving business had just been closed and used as a tax write-off. And the community had been decimated. "I asked myself, are we as a nation better for this corporate restructuring?" Sterner says. "When I wrote 'Other People's Money' in 1986, the takeover boom wasn't hysterical yet. But I could see it coming. Kate [Jorgenson's lawyer] says 'One day we're going to smarten up and pass some laws to stop you, Garfinkle.' Well we didn't pass any laws...." Asked if the play is merely topical or will last as a piece of theater, Sterner says it's too early to tell. "It does ask questions we need to ask.... What place does a manmade device like business hold in our society? Is business here to satisfy the needs of its citizenry or are we here to serve the needs of business? How do we balance the need to have a long-term point of view with our incredible desire for instant gratification?" Still, Sterner isn't ready to label Garfinkle a villain. "It's not a good versus evil situation. That ambiguity in the play reflects the ambiguity in the author which reflects the ambiguity in the populace.... People ask ... which side do you come down on? Sterner says that unlike any other play about business, he's given both sides their best arguments. The speeches near the end when Jorgenson argues for decency (for maintaining a business to keep people employed), and Garfinkle speaks to the rights of the stockholders, are both so compelling that they have been reprinted in the Harvard Business Review and in the Congressional Record as the essential description of this clash of values.