Theater Review: High Finance and Low Crimes, in Ayad Akhtar’s Junk

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From Ayad Akhtar’s Junk, at Lincoln Center. Photo: T Charles Erickson

At 7 years old, Ayad Akhtar surprised his parents—both midwestern doctors from Muslim backgrounds but without a fervent religious practice — by becoming suddenly enraptured by his ancestral faith. He started praying and asked to attend the (only) local mosque regularly. At 46, he has written an acclaimed novel, American Dervish — a fictionalized account of his childhood religious zeal — as well as three plays that examine the inextricably complex equation of Islam + America: The Who & The What, The Invisible Hand, and Disgraced, which passed through Lincoln Center on its way from a 2012 premiere at the American Theater Company in Chicago to the 2013 Pulitzer.

Now, Akhtar is back at Lincoln Center picking apart a different tangled American web: money. Or, more specifically, the idea of money — the promise of it, otherwise known as debt. Junk, Akhtar’s weighty, wily exploration of the forces and personalities that, during the 1980s, began shifting Wall Street’s tectonic plates toward our current culture of amoral wealth worship, would at first glance seem to be a departure for him. There are no Muslim characters in the play, which centers on the ruthless and, in his own way, righteous figure of semi-fictional financier Robert Merkin. (Akhtar has borrowed his protagonist’s name from J. Ezra Merkin — a hedge-fund manager known for his entanglement with Bernie Madoff — and most of his biography from Michael Milken, who irrevocably transformed the market with his use of “junk bonds,” the high-risk, high-yield securities for which Akhtar’s play is named.) But the 7-year-old who became obsessed with the intricacies of the Quran is still there. Akhtar is still examining a faith. This time, that faith is Finance — the one church where all of America prays, whether we like it or not.

Junk chronicles Merkin’s rise and (at least temporary) fall: We watch as he launches the most ambitious bid of his already high-flying career, and we see him, like his real-life analogue Milken, laid low and jailed at the peak of his power after an investigation related to insider trading.* Late in the play, Merkin (Steven Pasquale in a tight-jawed, darkly charismatic performance) tries to offer a prison guard some financial advice about buying his own home, but the guard demurs. “It’s like Chinese to me,” he admits as he stares at Merkin’s calculations, sketched out on a legal pad. “That’s how they get you,” Merkin shoots back. “It’s how they get everyone. The system’s speaking a different language, a language they know people don’t understand. The second anyone tries to explain it, their eyes glaze over. That’s by design.” Or, to put it more succinctly, as does New York’s U.S. Attorney Joe Addesso (a blunt, calculating performance by Charlie Semine): “Nobody understands this shit. Nobody cares about it.”

I’m with the security guard: One of the many who hears money talk and feels lost in translation, angrily cowed by a language I do not speak and am specifically meant not to. Even now, trying to fully comprehend Junk’s eponymous construct — the idea that debt has value, that it’s buyable, sellable, acquirable, tradeable — feels like bloodying my forehead against a wall. Akhtar is doing something pretty gutsy with Junk, perhaps something not so dissimilar to the wheelers and dealers he’s depicting: He’s taking a calculated risk. He’s betting that — though the majority of his audience will probably have minds that, where high finance is concerned, work more like mine than Merkin’s or Milken’s — we’ll stick with him, especially through the knotty first half of the play. The gamble is that even without perfect understanding, our eyes won’t glaze over. We’ll still care.

Formally, the risk pays off. Junk’s driving tempo, cinematic smash-cuts, and clarity of underlying action undoubtedly hold our attention. Akhtar has said that he wants audiences “to have an emotional experience of this process of capital” — to get caught up in the thrust of each scene (“somebody’s instructing somebody, somebody’s stealing from somebody, somebody’s betraying somebody else’s confidence”) even if phrases like “undisclosed equity stakes” sound a bit like Chinese. Director Doug Hughes understands that one of the things Akhtar is doing in Junk is riffing on the Shakespearean history play. He keeps the action rolling relentlessly forward on an effectively streamlined, compartmentalized set by John Lee Beatty that — not unlike an Elizabethan theater — allows for quick, imaginative shifts in time and space.

“This is a story of kings,” the writer Judy Chen (a slick, brash performance by Teresa Avia Lim) informs us as the lights rise. As a writer — and, at first, the would-be exposer of Wall Street’s spiders and their web of greed — she serves as our Chorus, breaking the fourth wall like her Shakespearean predecessor to inform us of our hero’s position, the stakes of certain battles, and the progress of the war. Because for all that’s troubling about him, Merkin is our hero and his story is a war play. Junk follows Merkin’s biggest gamble yet. He’s already made the cover of Time (“America’s Alchemist! Turning debt into cash. From nothing, something!”) and gained infamy for using junk bonds as leverage to finance the acquisition and slicing up of numerous companies. But now he’s got his sights set on his first Dow Jones corporation: Everson Steel, an ailing Pennsylvania-based manufacturing titan whose foundry is no longer profitable, though its pharmaceutical offshoot is thriving. As Merkin remarks coolly, “Everson Steel is a great company, as long as you take away the steel part.”

The sides are as clear as England versus France. In fact, the play is one long siege: The corporate raiders — led by Merkin in service of a new world order where constant accumulation is the be-all, end-all — smashing their battering rams against the gates of Old Capitalism, a place where actual products are made instead of just … more money. Of course, just like the audience of any Henry V, we know who wins in the end. As Akhtar put it in an interview with John Guare, “GM no longer makes cars to make cars but makes cars to sell the car loans that yield 5 percent.” Despite Merkin/Milken’s inevitable (though brief) jail time, his vision shaped the future we live in: The battle and the war are his.

It’s a credit to Akhtar, Hughes, and Pasquale’s uncompromising Merkin (who all along envisions himself as a kind of individualist Robin Hood, only making “fools out of the people in charge”) that Junk doesn’t play as a blanket condemnation of Wall Street and a nostalgic eulogy for Main Street. Yes, hundreds of workers at Everson Steel will lose their jobs when Merkin’s takeover goes through — that’s emotional stuff, the kind of material that if played right, we know all too painfully, will win you elections even though you can and will do exactly nothing about it. But Akhtar is too interested in the complexities of the system — this massive, omnipotent gospel we’ve written — to paint even its seediest figures as villains. There are no villains in a game, only players. Bad ones, good ones, and ones who rewrite the entire rule book.

According to the rules it sets out for itself, Junk wins. But as with Merkin’s victory, the taste is more bitter than sweet. The play’s effect on the heart is a pretty desolate one. “I’m coming to believe,” Akhtar has said, “that a granular understanding of why we can’t do anything about all of this is of greater value than understanding what it is that we can do about it. We have to understand how beholden we are to the centralizing forces of finance in our lives.” That’s a cold shower, especially when we’ve been told countless times in the last year that Junk’s particular art form is needed “now more than ever.” Yes, Akhtar seems to be arguing, plays like mine are needed, but specifically because we should realize that they won’t change much of anything. Following in the footsteps of last season’s Tony-winning Oslo, Junk will be called a “big” play — a 17-person cast tackling an Important Subject on an Important Theater’s Biggest Stage. That’s a specific, high-power game, and Junk plays it well, but the scariest thing about the play is its awareness of its relative lack of power. Akhtar senses how small it is — how small we all are — in the face of our own monstrous gods.

Junk is at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.

*Owing to an editing error, this sentence said that Milken was convicted of insider trading, and has been corrected.

Theater: High Finance and Low Crimes, in Ayad Akhtar’s Junk