A business degree is not a prerequisite for an appreciation of “Junk,” a new play by Ayad Akhtar about the heady heights and ethical lows of American finance in the 1980s. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt, either.
The latest drama from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Disgraced” is based firmly on the real-life boom and bust of Michael Milken, the so-called “junk bond king” who was ultimately imprisoned for breaking finance laws. It delves so deeply into the weeds of its already arcane (to the layman) subject matter that I sometimes itched for a flow chart or an Excel spreadsheet to be superimposed above the stage, just to keep my head from exploding.
Directed by Doug Hughes at the dizzying pace of speed traders racking up dollars at full froth, and acted by an excellent cast, the play is supremely well-researched, insightful and smart. It is also, on the other hand, so conscientiously thorough in its analysis of its subject that it often feels dense to the point of stultifying. And its ample array of characters — as well as its many-threaded plot — result in a play with greater breadth than depth. As a many-chaptered primer on an ominous turning point in the American economy, it earns full marks. But emotionally, and to some extent dramatically, it’s pretty much a washout.
Thinking caps firmly in place? OK, here we go. Steven Pasquale plays the Milken-esque character, Robert Merkin, an investment banker who specializes in arranging funding for hostile takeovers of old-school businesses. His target is Everson Steel, a venerable manufacturing company run by Thomas Everson Jr. (Rick Holmes) that has recently begun diversifying, but not quickly enough to make it invulnerable to the harsh vagaries of an increasingly volatile — and predatory — market.
The man who will be largely backing the hostile takeover, to be managed by Merkin, is Israel “Izzy” Peterman (Matthew Rauch), defined in the script as a “corporate raider,” but basically a hard-driving rich white guy, a category of characters in which “Junk” is, shall we say, abundantly stocked. Perhaps to combat the sometimes eye-glazing financial jargon of the play, the actors often seems to be engaged in a shouting competition; the play could be subtitled “Rich White Men Yelling.”
Also on the Merkin team: the rare non-white guy, the Hispanic lawyer Raúl Rivera (Matthew Saldivar), as well as a figure who skulks around the proceedings begging for scraps from the Merkin feast, Boris Pronsky (played with an air of hangdog desperation by Joey Slotnick). A check for $6.5 million that Pronsky owes Merkin for a previous deal will figure significantly in the complicated proceedings that lead to Merkin’s comeuppance.
Akhtar does not turn any of his characters into pure caricatures of greedy excess. (The play is subtler, albeit more academic, than Oliver Stone’s movie, “Wall Street.”) He attempts to humanize them: We see Merkin, played by Pasquale as a man with a sheath of steel around him at all times, at home with his whip-smart wife, Amy (Miriam Silverman) — though his good-family-man status is somewhat obviously illustrated by having Merkin lovingly swaddling a baby. We also hear him defending his ethos and lamenting his bad PR: “I’m not killing jobs. I’m creating them. The press is always looking for the simple story.”
But “Junk” is a play driven — and driven hard — by plot rather than character. This quickly thickens when Everson, learning that his company is facing a hostile takeover, enlists an ally to thwart it: Leo Tresler (a funny, foaming-at-the-mouth Michael Siberry), a “private equity magnate” (read: rich white guy) who scorns the new practices taking over Wall Street. New corporate raiders are absorbing established companies, and in the process of taking them over, saddling these companies with excessive debt and strip-mining the company’s assets. In the end, this enriches the lawyers and bankers who arrange the deals and leaves the little guys adrift. (We only briefly see the abandoned blue-collar folks, the steel workers.)
Also on Everson’s team is his loyal investment adviser, Maximilien Cizik, whom the fine Henry Stram manages to infuse with a quiet humanity that brings relief from all the high-volume trading of highly technical dialogue. And Everson’s lawyer, Jacqueline Blount (Ito Aghayere), is another of the play’s few non-white-male characters, a young black woman who is perhaps more ambitious than loyal, as we will come to see.
We will come to see, or really, to hear, an awful lot about the business behind the high finance in “Junk.” Among assorted subplots are a romantic relationship between Tresler and a wily young Asian-American journalist, Judy Chen (Teresa Avia Lim), who is working on a book about the new ethos on Wall Street, and is willing to hop into bed with Tresler if need be. (Given the avalanche of sexual harassment scandals rocking the nation, this subplot is a bit queasy-making.) Akhtar also includes allusions to the anti-Semitism that echoed through the higher echelons of the business world. Though Everson, played with a convincing combination of righteous indignation and insecurity by Holmes, is nominally one of the good guys, he still makes a crack about doing deals on a Saturday and spits out the name “Israel” with unhidden distaste.
There’s also a subplot about an attempt by Everson and his allies to cook up a so-called “poison pill” to thwart the takeover. But at a certain point, I’ll confess, all the talk of stock price manipulation and the arcana of the markets began to pall, and while “Junk” feels fairly brisk at two-and-a-half-hours, the thickness of the plot and the (comparative) thinness of the characterizations left me more than a little jargon-fatigued.
As is customary at Lincoln Center Theater, “Junk” has been produced with impeccable polish. The set, by John Lee Beatty, features two tiers of black boxes ringed in spangly lighting. It vaguely recalls the set for a fancy game show, which is not inappropriate. Blurred, often beautiful projections (from 59 Productions) in the background whizz us from Los Angeles, where Merkin does business (as Milken did), to the glistening towers of New York.
Though on the whole Akhtar gives us a rounded view of the business he’s exploring, “Junk” is not entirely free of pontifical speeches pointing out, a little baldly, the moral stakes. Speaking of Merkin and the approach to business he exemplifies, Tresler fulminates: “We used to be a country that paid our bills. That made things. This guy comes along and says he’s manufacturing debt. Only thing he’s manufacturing is deals that do not need to happen. Deals that are excuses for his thievery. The bastard should be arrested. Not put on the cover of Time magazine.”
Some decades on, of course, Donald Trump (of all people, one cannot resist adding) capitalized on similar views of the evolving American economy to energize his base and win the presidency. To its credit, “Junk” does not push too hard on making told-you-so points about how the huge economic disparities of today’s America can be traced to the freewheeling financial shenanigans of the 1980s.
Still, the point is taken, and taken again. Ultimately the emphasis on the mechanics of deal-making, at the expense of establishing characters we can care much about, leaves “Junk” with a dramatic balance sheet that’s seriously skewed in the direction of pedagogy, as opposed to humanity.
“Junk” opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theater on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017.
Creative: Written by Ayad Akhtar; Original Music by Mark Bennett. Directed by Doug Hughes; Scenic Design by John Lee Beatty; Costume Design by Catherine Zuber; Lighting Design by Ben Stanton; Sound Design by Mark Bennett; Projections by 59 Productions.
Producers: Lincoln Center Theater, produced in arrangement with The Araca Group
Cast: Ito Aghayere, Philip James Brannon, Tony Carlin, Demosthenes Chrysan, Jenelle Chu, Caroline Hewitt, Rick Holmes, Ted Koch, Ian Lassiter, Teresa Avia Lim, Adam Ludwig, Sean McIntyre, Nate Miller, Steven Pasquale, Ethan Phillips, Matthew Rauch, Matthew Saldivar, Charlie Semine, Michael Siberry, Miriam Silverman, Joey Slotnick, Henry Stram, Stephanie Umoh.