By Andrea Chambers Toby Kahn
December 04, 1989 12:00 PM

His name is Larry Garfinkle—Larry the Liquidator to his Wall Street cronies—a fat, greasy-lipped corporate raider who swallows companies and doughnuts with equal relish. He stomps on the stage waving cigars, bellowing obscenities, personifying greed and grump with a capital G. Now imagine an audience not only sympathizing with such a louse—but actually hoping he gets the girl. That is exactly what’s happening nightly at Other People’s Money, the off-Broadway play currently being hailed as the sleeper hit of the New York season.

Playwright Jerry Sterner, 51, a former businessman well versed in the ways of Wall Street, is delighted with his success. He’s thrilled that the play will tour the country next spring and is scheduled to open in London in April. Yet Sterner is also alarmed that he has done his job too well. “It’s scary how many single women have asked me if Garfinkle has a brother,’ he says. “There’s an ethic here that the play captures and the audience loves. But I wrote the play in protest against that ethic. I wanted to show what happens when we allow the Garfinkles of this world to capture our hearts as well as our pockets.”

The play tells the story of Garfinkle’s bid to gobble up a mom-and-pop company. Kevin Conway, who plays Garfinkle with vulnerability peeking through the bluster, is responsible for much of his character’s appeal. But some of Garfinkle’s winning qualities are in the script, and that, Sterner admits, is because he feels some ambivalence himself. An incurable stock market speculator, he “believes there are big economic gains for some people in takeovers, though I don’t think that in itself makes them a good thing. I personally have benefited enormously from people like Garfinkle.” Sterner is benefiting enormously from Other People’s Money as well. The movie rights were purchased recently by Warner Bros., and the 10-month-old stage production still sells out virtually every night.

Those seats are filled by both the Wall Street crowd and regular folks who don’t know a poison pill from a golden parachute at least not at the beginning of the evening. By the final curtain, thanks to Sterner’s nimble explanations, every playgoer has been painlessly initiated into Wall Street lingo.

Sterner himself did not cut his teeth on the intricacies of stocks and bonds. He was born in the Bronx, the only son of an engineer who left the family when Jerry was a baby. His mother, a bookkeeper, struggled on through a series of menial jobs. Sterner enrolled in New York’s City College in 1956 and spent six years there, switching majors, finally leaving without a degree. Throughout these years Sterner, who had been spellbound by a performance of Inherit the Wind he had seen at 16, was toying with the idea of becoming a playwright. Determined to see if he had any talent, he took a job selling tokens on the graveyard shift so he could write in the booth.

It was his 1967 marriage to Jean Roth-stein, a computer systems analyst, and the birth of his daughters (Emily, 21, and Kate, 18) that ended Sterner’s years in the booth. Figuring he’d better get serious about money, he began putting his own money in the stock market. “That world is fascinating,” he says. “Money has a life of its own. If you know how people feel about money, that’s more revealing than any other single thing I know, including sleeping with them.”

By the time Sterner was 42 he had invested so wisely that he was able to quit his job and return to writing plays. In 1986 his first play, a comedy called Be Happy for Me, closed after BBS one night off Broadway. But Sterner, undaunted, began writing Other People’s Money. His inspiration was the plight of a small Michigan business that was bought by outsiders in a takeover struggle. Sterner, a stockholder, had made money on the deal. On a trip to Michigan in 1985, though, he stopped by the factory. “It was eerily empty,” he recalls. “It saddened me, and I decided to write a play about it.”

Not long after he finished Other People’s Money, Sterner learned for himself how it felt to be a stock market loser. When the market crashed on Oct. 19, 1987, he lost about $500,000. “I don’t think I ever felt worse in my adult life,” he says.

Luckily, the success of his play has more than balanced his losses. Once again, he is checking in with his broker every few hours. On the domestic front he remains a cautious investor: He and his wife have lived in the same middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood for 22 years, and Sterner admits

that when he leaves the theater where his smash play is running, “I think, ‘Should I take a cab or the subway home?’ ”

He is also keenly aware that a writer’s fortunes can rise and fall as unpredictably as any stock price. “So I want to enjoy every second of this play’s run,” he says. “I’m at the theater more than any sane writer should be. I’m the shlumpy-looking one. You show up, mingle, eaves-drop. It’s like a bar mitzvah, except you don’t have to pay for it. I never get tired of it.”

—Andrea Chambers, Toby Kahn in Brooklyn