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Written by Ayad Akhtar; directed by Doug Hughes
Performances through January 7, 2018
Steven Pasquale in Junk (photo by T. Charles Erickson)
Following his Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced, a critical self-examination of how Islam’s tenets fit into 21st century culture, and The Invisible Hand, which provocatively demonstrated how Islamic terrorism and today’s money-obsessed world converge, Ayad Akhtar returns with Junk, a sprawling but meticulously structured dramatization of the roots of our current financial predicament.
Set in 1985, Junk centers on Robert Merkin—based on the infamous Michael Milken, jailed for insider trading—wunderkind of the Reagan-era financial world, an L.A.-based whiz kid at the forefront of the new junk bond industry. Planning a hostile takeover of a successful family-owned steel company—his intended target, CEO Thomas Everson, doesn’t stand a chance against Merkin’s updated playbook—Merkin simply doesn’t care how he wins, as long as he wins.
That plot outline is just the tip of the iceberg, as Akhtar and his shrewd director Doug Hughes make Junk a wide-ranging, epically-scaled exploration of what money means in America and how we got to this point. With some two dozen characters and many plot strands intersecting, the play is unafraid to be complicated, even if it’s fairly easy to follow it through the crannies without having any insider Wall Street knowledge. A lively ensemble, John Lee Beatty’s imposing two-tiered set and Ben Stanton’s magisterial lighting contribute to that all-important fluidity.
Akhtar also shows how money infests everything: everyone is dragged down to Merkin’s level, even enterprising journalist Judy Chen (the poised Teresa Avia Lim), who is asked by Merkin’s crooked lawyer Raul Rivera (a perfectly slimy Matthew Saldivar) to junk the manuscript of a tell-all book she’s writing for a pile of hush money, or veteran financier Leo Tresler (a blustery, bellowing Michael Siberry), who sees what junk bonds will end up doing to Wall Street but who realizes he may have to play Merkin’s game himself to survive.
Admittedly, since Akhtar wrote Junk with the benefit of hindsight, there are moments that ring false or obvious. When Merkin (the roguish charming Steven Pasquale) asserts that the Dow might someday hit 15 or 20 thousand, an incredulous Chen retorts, “Yesterday’s close was 1300. The Dow at 20000 sounds absurd,” which is greeted with wink-wink nudge-nudge responses from the audience. And the Giuliani-like D.A. going after Merkin for insider trading, Giuseppi Addesso (a properly Rudy-esque Charlie Semine), says “nobody understands this shit—and nobody cares,” which elicits giggles of approval. Then there’s the entire dramatic arc of Merkin getting his comeuppance, which plays out as one would expect, with little suspense or even schadenfreude.
That said, Akhtar nails the persona of Merkin as a charismatic, unscrupulous “master of the universe”—he even lies to his financial whiz of a wife (a sober Amy Silverman) about a shady character he’s using for suspect trades, Boris Pronsky (a bedraggled Joey Slotnick), who’s eventually his Achilles’ heel. And Merkin is allowed to speak uncomfortable truths about American exceptionalism and how other countries are surpassing us, crystallized in a rousing act two speech that climaxes thus: “Let’s just set aside those lies. Those delusions. And let’s stick with the facts. Fact: They are winning. Fact: We need to understand why. Fact: We need to change. When you stay blind, you can’t change. When you can’t change, you die. And that is what is happening in this country right now.”
Junk ends with a sly zinger about the possible cause of the 2008 mortgage crisis that Akhtar smartly doesn’t telegraph; it’s a deliciously satisfying wrap-up to a bracingly serious play.
Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY
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