‘Junk’ at Lincoln Center Theater (Photo: T. Charles Erickson via The Broadway Blog.)
By Matthew Wexler
I think about money. A lot.
I think about how I wish I had more money. I think about when—if ever—I’ll be able to retire. I think about balancing my checkbook, even though the days of ledgers are long. There are few subjects that can sucker punch you like money.
In spite of financial guru Suze Orman’s mantra, “People first, then money, then things,” most of us, at one point or another, juggle our priorities and money (or the idea of money) comes front and center. Such is the subject—along with brushstrokes of debt, religious prejudice, politics, and loyalty—of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar’s latest work, Junk.
Set circa 1985, Junk explores the origins of debt financing through a topsy-turvy plot that follows junk bond trader Robert Merkin (Steven Pasquale) as he and his minions sell high-risk bonds and, along with creative financing, use their target’s own cash flow as collateral on a loan, which he then uses to buy the company.
Merkin’s target, in this case, is the family-owned Everson Steel and United, now overseen by Thomas Everson, Jr. (Rick Holmes), who bewilderedly tries to deflect the harsh takeover by enlisting the financial help of private equity magnate Leo Tressler (Michael Siberry).
Even with The Lincoln Center Review in hand, a copiously articulate companion publication available at the theatre for a dollar donation, Akhtar’s dense work simultaneously furrowed my brow and had me on the edge of my seat. It strikes a similar chord (not in subject matter, but rather in its micro/macro level approach) to other masterworks that unapologetically delve into a particular place and time, such as Tony Kushner’s Angels in America or Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.
It would be easy to hate Merkin, a financial vulture who preys on vulnerable companies but he’s quick to point out to his wife Amy (smartly played by Miriam Silverman) that he comes from a lineage of rule breakers from JP Morgan to Andrew Carnegie. Pasquale’s cold charisma is infectious, and Akhtar’s script gives him enough ammunition that his scheming maintains plausibility.
It’s only when Giuseppe Addesso (Charlie Semine), a U.S. attorney with political aspirations, gets a whiff of what’s happening upstream that Merkin’s plan starts to unravel as his cronies like Boris Pronsky (scrappily played by Joey Slotnick) agree to plea deals rather than go down with a sinking ship.
Junk could become esoteric if in the wrong hands. Fortunately, director Doug Hughes keeps the pace brisk, aided by a slick set by John Lee Beatty, projections by 59 Productions, original music and sound by Mark Bennett, and a 23-member cast that feels like a guilty pleasure in today’s theatrical landscape.
Gazing among the ascending rows of Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater at intermission, I had a passing fancy, wondering who among the audience (many of whom are members of the elite Lincoln Center Theater) might have had associations with Michael Milken, the real-life financier and inspiration for Akhtar’s lead character. While Milken’s post-prison third act includes a prestigious philanthropic foundation, Junk leaves us with a chilling foreshadow of the subprime mortgage crisis.
And if it all seems too much, the fictional Merkin says it’s by design:
“That’s how they get you. It’s how they get everyone. They 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. You know that old saying, a fool and his money are soon parted, right?”
Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont
150 West 65th Street, NYC
Through January 7, 2018
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.