“When did money become the thing – the only thing?” a character asks at the beginning of “Junk,” a play by Ayad Akhtar, who seems to answer: In the 1980s. Akhtar, the playwright of “Disgraced,” the Pulitzer-winning play about the price of assimilation for a Muslim American, and “The Invisible Hand,” about a terrorist kidnapping, here presents less venturesome dramatic territory by revisiting the heady era of corporate raiding, insider trading, junk bonds — a well-staged production about a well-trod subject.
With a 23-member cast, “Junk” presents the multiple strands of a story that revolves around the plans by junk bond trader Robert Merkin (Steven Pasquale) to execute a hostile takeover of a steel company based in (and dominating) the small (fictional) city of Allegheny, Pennsylvania. Everson Steel is presided over by Thomas Everson Jr. (Rick Holmes) third generation scion, who is an upstanding, well-meaning businessman but less talented than his grandfather, who founded the steel mills, and his father, who smartly diversified it into pharmaceuticals and financial services.
It’s clear from the get-go that Everson doesn’t stand much of a chance against Merkin’s corporate raider Izzy Peterman (played as hyperactive and amoral by Matthew Rauch), Boris Pronsky (Joey Slotnick as a dour-faced shlub), who gives Merkin illegal insider tips; and Everson’s own high-powered lawyer, Jacqueline Blount (Ito Aghayere), who is a mole for Merkin.
Meanwhile, Giuseppe Addesso (Charlie Semine) schemes to put Wall Street’s high-rollers behind bars, driven by the headlines it would generate, helping to fulfill his ambitions to be mayor of New York.
We’ve seen all of this before, not least in real life – prosecutor turned mayor Rudolph Giuliani’ investment banker Michael Milken; Ivan Boesky, convicted of insider trading – he’s the one who reportedly really said: Greed is Good.
Yes, that’s the line Michael Douglas says in Wall Street, the 1987 movie directed by Oliver Stone, which was followed by a slew of Wall Street movies — “Boiler Room” (2000) “Margin Call” (2011) “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013) and “The Big Short” (2015) – the most recent of which focus on the events that led to the 2008 collapse. Broadway has been less fertile soil for plays about business shenanigans: Lucy Prebble’s “Enron,” which was a hit in England, lasted for just 12 days after opening on Broadway in 2010.
The Robert Merkin character doesn’t say “Greed is good” in “Junk.” He says “Debt is an asset.”
If there’s little that feels unfamiliar or especially timely in “Junk,” Akhtar has written a reasonably lucid primer on the process and logic of 1980s corporate takeovers. We learn that they required a charismatic figure like Merkin to charm investors into buying his high-yield but dubious junk bonds, and use the money to bid up the stock price of a targeted company, then take if over and sell off its assets.
Director Doug Hughes makes the two and a half hours of the play go swiftly. Set designer John Lee Beatty and lighting designer Ben Stanton help solve the problem that most of the wheeling-dealing, wheedling, strategizing and bullying is done by telephone, with a multi-tiered set of individual cubicles. The caller on the stage, typically Merkin, faces the audience while a cubicle on the top tier lights up when he calls somebody – that character also facing the audience. The set at times resembles the familiar digitized tickertape, a flashy effect that underscores the power rush that the high-power characters feel. Ok, yes, even that effect is not original; “Enron” pioneered it.
It’s in one way to Akhtar’s credit that he creates no complete villains in “Junk,” allowing each character their point of view and rationale for their behavior. The corporate raiders argue that what they do makes for a healthier economy – although an early scene humorously undermines their self-declared benevolence when Merkin discusses with his colleagues how to use language to obfuscate and seduce (words like “hope” and “reform” in place of “impose cuts.”) But there are also certainly no heroes, even those you’re initially encouraged into thinking will be, such as Everson (who makes remarks easily construed as anti-Semitic), financial journalist Judy Chen (Teresa Avila Chen) and irascible old-school financier Leo Tresler (Michael Siberry), who boasts of his high principles. Judy and Leo are involved in a subplot that adds a little sex into the mix that at first seems just an odd ploy to make “Junk” more marketable — one of several such potboiler elements in the play — but Akhtar redeems himself by cleverly folding it into the main plot.
Theatergoers might welcome a speech that Merkin gives at the top of Act II, in which the playwright seems finally to be taking a clear stand against an unmitigated villain, but one unseen and unmentioned in “Junk.” It is also Akhtar’s clearest effort to tie the 1980s to our current era:
“.I sometimes feel like I’ve stepped into a collective delusion. The bizarre, self-serving belief that we, Americans, are somehow better than others…
“No evidence is offered. Just nostalgic rhetoric
“..what do we hear in this country? ‘We’re Americans. We invented the automobile. We built the greatest steel mills the world has ever known. God bless America.’ Let’s set aside the revolting assumption that God doesn’t bless other nations, or that somehow an American father’s job is more important to his family than a Chinese father’s job is to his. 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.”
Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater
Written by Ayad Akhtar; Directed by Doug Hughes
Sets by John Lee Beatty; costumes by Catherine Zuber; lighting by Ben Stanton; original music & sound by Mark Bennett; projections by 59 Productions;
Cast: Ito Aghayere, Phillip James Brannon, Tony Carlin, 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 and Stephanie Umoh
Running time: Two and a half hours, including an intermission.
Tickets: $87 to $147
“Junk” is scheduled to run through January 7, 2018.