by Carol Rocamora
“This is a story of kings, or what passes for kings these days…”
So goes the opening line of Junk, Ayad Akhtar’s riveting morality tale of money and greed and American values in the 1980s.
And who might these royals be, you ask? Why, none other than kings of finance, of course.
It’s a troubling sign to see so many of these questionable kings on stage and screen today (not to mention in the White House). Madoff and his family have shown up in a number of recent plays and films (Richard Dreyfuss and Robert De Niro both have played him). You’ll find Rupert Murdoch (played by Bertie Carvel) today on the London stage in James Graham’s Ink. As for fictitious versions, who can forget ruthless financiers like Michael Douglas’s “Gordon Gekko” in Wall Street, or Jeremy Irons’s “John Tuld” in Margin Call?
And now it’s the turn of Michael Milken, the convicted “Junk bond king” of the ‘80s. In Akhtar’s play, he’s called “Robert Merkin” (played by Steven Pasquale), head of an outsider investment firm, featured on the cover of “Time Magazine” in 1985. Hailed as a financial guru, Merkin’s renegade theory -“debt is an asset” – has gained him limitless power in the financial world. Or so he thinks.
Fueled by a sense of the market’s infallibility as well as his own, Merkin is trying to stage a hostile takeover of a failing family-held company called Everson Steel – by financing it with junk bonds of precarious value. Therein lies the drive of Junk’s thriller-style plot – one that will keep you on the edge of your seat, even as you sense the inevitable arc of this rise-and-fall saga.
Merkin’s hard-driving story plays out on John Lee Beatty’s slick black-lacquered stage. Projections of stock market reports flash on the upstage wall, while a company of 23 actors, fluidly directed by Doug Hughes, play numerous archetypes at breakneck speed. You’ll recognize them all; Merkin, the shark-like money-king (a chilling Steven Pasquale), Everson, the last “ethical businessman” (an earnest Rick Holmes): Leo Tresler, the determined competitor (a flamboyant Michael Siberry); Judy Chen, the opportunistic newswoman (a wily Teresa Avia Lim); Jacqueline Blount, the corporate “mole” (a treacherous Ito Aghayere); Murray Lefkowitz, the trusting investor (a touching Ethan Phillips). They’re all sharply etched characters and players in a ruthless game.
Playwright Akhtar is a brilliant researcher, as well as a consummate craftsman. He’s been writing about American business, success, and money consistently (see Disgraced, his Pulitzer Prize winning play in 2013, and The Invisible Hand in 2014, about terrorism and finance).
With Junk, however, he’s broadened his scope, penetrating to the heart of contemporary American values. Like David Mamet before him (American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross), he examines the amorality of American business ethics. Seductive language has duped us, as his characters articulate aphorisms like: “Debt is the nothing that gives birth to everything;” or “We’re creating wealth for everyone;” or “Nothing makes money like money.”
It follows naturally, then, that money has become the core value of American identity. “It’s not the money that defines us, it’s the man that defines the money;” “A man is what he has;” and “What a man has, makes him in the eyes of the world.”
When I hear lines like those from the mouths of Akhtar’s characters, I hear an intentional negation of Willy Loman’s cries in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman – that seminal work from which so many plays on American values have sprung. Has our identity become as worthless as a junk bond?
Ayad Akhtar has the courage to smash the models of American success, supposedly built on the myths of the Rockefellers and the J.P Morgans – both of whom are mentioned in the play. He’s showing us who we’ve become – namely, the Milkens – whether we like it or not. He’s done it with bold theatricality, in a sensational, large-scale production. Lincoln Center Theatre has put its money where its playwright’s mouth is.
Photos: T Charles Erickson
Junk, by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Doug Hughes, at Lincoln Center Theatre at the Vivian Beaumont, through January 7. www.lct.org/shows/junk