In the never-ending discussion of the state of the American economy, the issue of the focus on shareholder value is frequently raised. It is thought in some quarters that the pressure to always ensure an increase in shareholder value diminishes corporate emphasis on long-range, strategic and ultimately more profitable goals. The emphasis on immediate investor profits can also lessen the focus on other matters such as adequate worker compensation, protection of the environment, and the effect of business decisions on the surrounding community.

Tom Attea has written a new play aptly titled Shareholder Value which addresses the issue of excessive concern with short term investor gain. The drama focuses on Jerry Ingram, the CEO of the fictional company Total Electric. As a result of the 2008 financial crisis, Ingram scrambles to find a number of quick solutions to ensure quarterly profits, including spinning off divisions, implementing cutbacks and ignoring long term strategy. An activist shareholder challenges Ingram’s leadership and as the company begins to disintegrate, no less than Thomas Edison (the founder of Total Electric) begins to haunt the CEO’s dreams. The play is billed as being “Based loosely on the meltdown at General Electric.”

In addition to being a playwright, Attea has also had a career writing commercials for such clients as Dr. Pepper and developing sitcoms (one of his programs was optioned by Johnny Carson Productions and developed by CBS). Shareholder Value also features incidental music by Arthur Abrams and is directed by Mark Marcante. This is the fifteenth project on which Abrams, Marcante and Attea have collaborated.

Shareholder Value opens on March 30 and plays through April 14 at Theater For the New City located at 155 1st Avenue at East 10th Street in Manhattan.

What was the impetus behind the creation of Shareholder Value?

Attea: All my works are expressions of my continual thinking about contemporary events and deciding which ones merit a place on the stage. I decided that writing such works is the unique contribution a living playwright can make. When I commit to a subject, I imagine a character who would personify it, along with the other characters in his or her life and the central emergency that precipitates their story. Then I write it in a way I think will invite the participation of the audience, or, in Somerset Maugham’s words, I aim to write “intelligent entertainment.”

What issues is the play exploring?

Attea: I had been thinking of the ongoing meltdown at General Electric for some time, as well as reading about the negative effects that obsession with delivering shareholder value can do to the long-term success of a company. The persistent short-term thinking of CEO’s to record quarterly profits, particularly when a company has problems that can only be solved over time, causes dreadful financial and human harm. I wanted to create a fictional way to present the subject and felt I’m probably the only playwright who, as an award-winning copywriter, has met enough CEO’s, excellent and egregious, to write a credible play about the subject.

When I understood what was at stake, I had to deal with the issue. Think of it this way. General Electric has over 300,000 employees, who are gripping the rail during a dangerous and involuntary rollercoaster ride. By comparison, Death of a Salesman, great as it may be, is about one disappointed sales guy.

This is your fifteenth collaboration with composer Arthur Abrams and director Mark Marcante. How did the collaboration begin and why do you think the creative and professional relationships have been so long-lasting?

Attea: Arthur, Mark, and I have a wonderfully unique and enduring way of working together. I met Arthur when I was in the Playwrights Unit of The Actors Studio, which I was a member of for ten years. One day the head of the Directors Unit told me a well-known director had approached the head and a co-founder, Lee Strasberg, about doing a revue based on how actors reflect their times through the roles they take. Of course, Lee loved the idea.

The director began his search for a comedy writer to collaborate with on the sketches and lyrics. He happened to ask the head of the Directors Unit if he knew anyone in the Studio who could write comedy. At the time, I had been writing humorous Dr. Pepper commercials that had become a minor form of national levity, and the head of the unit told him I was the only writer in the Studio who could write comedy.

The director was Charles Friedman, who had been the original director of the landmark revue Pins and Needles, a show doctor, and the head of all musicals at 20th Century Fox under Zanuck. Somehow, he also found Arthur, who became the composer of the show. After a 10-year collaboration, during which Charlie turned out to be an invaluable mentor to both of us, the revue was presented in the showcase at the Studio.

A few years later, Arthur called. He had become affiliated with Theater for the New City and said he was working on a new revue. The team needed someone to write more sketches and lyrics, and he wanted to know if I was interested. I went to the theater for a meeting. The director was Mark Marcante. The collaboration went so well that we were soon at work on a second revue, which The Villager called “Delightfully funny!” and did a two-page spread about. It was followed by a full-length musical, Abstinence, which a publisher has recently selected to represent. We’ve been collaborating ever since.

Crystal Field, the Executive Director of the theater, has made it a wonderfully nourishing creative home for me, as she has for countless other playwrights. For example, early on I received a Theater for the New City/Jerome Foundation grant as an emerging playwright.

Are there any other playwrights that you admire and have they influenced your work? 

Attea: I admire different playwrights for different reasons: the Greek dramatists for pageantry, the Roman dramatists for frivolity, Shakespeare for language, Ibsen for plotting, Shaw for wit, Chekhov for character, Kaufman and Hart for high comedy, Arthur Miller for serious-mindedness, and Neil Simon for more recent comedy.

Due to my father’s loving misguidance, I have a doctor’s degree, so I’m a scientist who’s at home in a scientific age. I realize that once we learned that life is improvable, at the same time it’s endangered by our neglect of its well-being, we learned two urgent things. Our ancient beliefs about being sent here as punishment are dead wrong, and we have to stop treating this life as a bus stop on the way to a better place. It’s time to put our faith in this life, as the way to save it from ourselves and as the most direct reverence we can show to its ultimate source. So I don’t identify with plays about traditional forms of angst. I want to see a new age of life-enhancing works, and I’m trying to contribute to it.

Do you think that theater can be a catalyst for economic and political change?

Attea: I think it’s the only contemporary artistic platform that can be. That’s why I choose to write for it. I’m quite dedicated to doing work that I think advances the self-realization of the human race in positive ways. The dedication has not been without tough decisions.

When I was in my 30’s, I was with William Morris for three years, developing sitcoms. Since I knew how to produce from my years writing creative commercials, the head of the television department thought I could be another Norman Lear. Johnny Carson Productions optioned a sitcom I created, and CBS developed it. Another production company, Steinberg-Reynolds, was interested in another sitcom I created. My two agents from Morris came to my apartment for lunch and told me it was time to go to Hollywood. I had a foothold in the theater and decided it was more likely to nourish the kind of work I came to New York to write. So I said no. I also passed up offers to be the creative director of two of the biggest global ad agencies, because I knew the input would overwhelm my ability to continue to write, what I consider, literature with timely social significance.

Is there anything in general you’d like to tell audiences about Shareholder Value?

Attea: If you like to see inviting stories of contemporary relevance that grow out of real characters – their abilities and doubts, strength and fragility – as they struggle to deal with challenging problems, if you like to see the thoughts you carry around inside but think no one else is thinking, if you believe in the spiritual communion live theater done with serious intent can enable you to participate in, I think you’ll find the show fulfills your expectations.

Would you like to share with us what your future projects are?

Attea: I’ve just finished writing the initial version of my next play, and I have a number of works that are still unproduced that I’d like to move ahead, including such works as General Stratton’s Memoirs, about a US general who is haunted by dreams of soldiers who have died in his service, including his son; The Poet and the Billionaire, about two brothers with vastly opposed ideals; and An Evening with Bertrand Russell, who, I decided, was intelligently witty enough to captivate an audience just by sharing his thoughts.

The scripts to all my works can be found at tomattea-playwright.com. Stageagent.com, which describes itself as “The leading resource for theater artists,” has also posted monologues and scenes from a number of them for actors and students. Alexandra Appleton, the gifted London editor, found my works online and has recently asked to post selections from, in her words, “the entire canon.”