Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 2, 2017
Junk by Ayad Akhtar. Directed by Doug Hughes. Sets designed by John Lee Beatty. Costumes designed by Catherine Zuber. Lighting designed by Ben Stanton. Original music and sound by Mark Bennett. Projections designed by 59 Productions. Cast: Ito Aghayere, Phillip James Brannon, Tony Carlin, Jenelle Chu, Demosthenes Chrysan, 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.
Akhtar, the playwright who gave us the Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced and the terrorist hostage-themed The Invisible Hand, has a way of putting his characters into difficult situations, and then waiting to see how they will react. In Disgraced, he brings together four strongly-opinionated characters of different races, cultures, religions, and genders for a dinner party, and then he lets them go at each other. In The Invisible Hand, he sets up a hostage situation and examines the interplay between captive and captor. But with Junk, and in spite of a very large cast (23 performers, some of whom play more than one role), Akhtar's focus is on a single individual, modeled on the "Junk Bond King" Michael Robert Milken, but here called Robert Merkin (Steven Pasquale). For Merkin, it's all about the rush that comes from living life on the edge (including the edge of legality) and climbing over bodies to take chest-thumping command of the hilltop.
Akhtar has done his homework. Especially in the early part of the play, expect to be bombarded with a lot of rapid-fire dialog, full of Wall Street jargon about insider trading, leveraged buyouts, white knights, and how the industry strives to frame its message in a reassuringly positive light. If you have a hard time understanding what the characters are talking about, not to worry. As one of them says: "Nobody understands this shit."
For the high rollers clawing their way to the top, the stock market is an addictive drug. There is a great deal of money at stake with their high-risk financial shenanigans of course, but money itself is not the primary lure. It is power they crave. They live in a world where you either inhabit the winner's circle, or you are one of the chumps who are left behind. Merkin intends to sit among the winners. His particular contribution to the crazed cloud cuckoo land of high finance is to sell the idea that "debt is an asset," a sound bite of a concept that gets his face on the cover of Time. In order to put his theory into practice, he sets his sights on a business he wants to buy, a company called Everson Steel. The owner, Thomas Everson Jr. (Rick Holmes) has no interest in giving up the business that had been founded by his grandfather. He will fight this hostile takeover to the death.
Akhtar weaves the many threads of his plot into a complex tapestry, played out in a dazzling array of intersecting scenes on John Lee Beatty's two-tiered set of cubicles, illuminated in an interplay of brightness and shadow by Ben Stanton's lighting and projections by 59 Productions. But things will solidify for you if you stay focused on the tug-of-war between Merkin and Everson, who succinctly summarizes his adversary's smoke-and-mirrors scheme. Merkin is aiming to raise the cash to wrest a majority ownership of market shares in Everson Steel by borrowing from a cadre of investors on the lure of a hypothetical and hefty profit, using the target company's own cash flow as a kind of promissory note.
Each side has its own team of supporters. Merkin's greatest ally is his brilliant financial wizard of a wife, Amy (Miriam Silverman), who is able to figure out Everson's Achilles heel of financial vulnerability. He also relies on the sleazy trader Boris Pronsky (Joey Slotnick) to do his bidding by manipulating share prices. On the other team, one standout is Leo Tresler (Michael Siberry), a long-established and highly successful billionaire equity lion whose personal philosophy draws a clear line in the sand between playing by the old-school rules and the kind of flimflammery being pulled by upstarts like Merkin. "Debt is not an asset," he says, as he rolls up his sleeves to enter into the fray. "Debt is debt." Tresler is more of a "friendly take-over" sort of guy, and he is more than happy to join the fight to bring Merkin to his knees.
Akhtar is not the first playwright to examine the mind-whomping coalescing of events that led to the financial mess of that particular time and place. Two British playwrights had a go at it previously. There was Caryl Churchill's satire Serious Money (1987), a grandly labyrinthine work, written in rhyming couplets no less. And more recently, we had Lucy Prebble's Enron (2009), a success in her native country but not so much when it landed on Broadway, where it was deemed by many to be a flimsy work wrapped in a lot of smoke and mirrors of its own. For its part, Junk, well-acted by a fine-tuned ensemble and spinningly directed by Doug Hughes, threatens at times to be engulfed by its complicated story and hand-to-hand combat that reflect Akhtar's research and his efforts at developing the many characters and subplots.
What we are left in the end is a real sense of the vulnerability of the global financial situation, which rests quite heavily on the Svengali-like influence of individual players, the old boy network, and the foolishness of those who are suckers for get-rich-quick schemes. I have to confess, I exited the performance with a strong urge to cash in my 401(k) and to put my money into something more reliable, like a little tin box stuffed under the mattress.