The only surprising thing about Ayad Akhtar’s play, “Junk”, is that we should be surprised. For all the high energy pacing, the intense, backroom power-broking, and the how-the-mighty-are-fallen denouement, nothing about the fact that people are greedy is surprising. Maybe we should just be startled at the scale.
“Junk” enjoyed a brief but respectable run on Broadway in 2017 and garnered a 2018 Tony nomination for Best Play. Now at Arena Stage under the precise direction of Jackie Maxwell, “Junk” is receiving as polished a treatment as one could wish for. And because the story is based on not-so-distant history, we know how it’s going to turn out – and are still spellbound.
Remember the junk bond scandal of the 1980s? That sudden, ballooning tower of risk and wealth created by the self-styled “Masters of the Universe” may have been difficult for the average person to understand, but one thing was clear – the whole scheme was designed to suck something out of nothing. Of course it eventually exploded, and the financial shrapnel was still being felt down to the housing bubble of 2007.
Akhtar’s play doesn’t recreate that exact crisis, but the comparison with “junk bond king” Michael Milken, who is now presumably living a life of quiet good works, is impossible to ignore. In his place we have Robert Merkin, (Thomas Keegan) a young N.Y. investment banker laser-focused on bending the system to his will while receiving unwelcome attention (a Time magazine cover) to his success.
Merkin moves in a tight circle of like-minded raiders who flatter themselves as visionaries, financial lions thriving in a modern Darwinian jungle. There is also a hint that their Jewishness and the historical exclusion of Jews from this “old boys” club adds a soupcon of spice to their raids on old established corporations.
Chief among them are lawyer, Raul Rivera, (Perry Young) and client Izzy Peterman (Jonathan Martin), whose lust for corporate raiding has no limit. Doesn’t matter what the corporation produces or how many workers it employs, its debt represents value and they go after it. In “Junk”, the target is Everson Steel.
Thomas Everson, Jr., (Ed Gero) son of the founder, is the only person who demonstrates what used to be considered reciprocal loyalty – management that cares for its employees, and workers who give their entire working lives to one company. But even the desperate Everson must resort to book-cooking to create the appearance of value to ward off hostile raiders.
He has one hope – investment from a silver-templed billionaire named Leo Tresler (David MacDonald) whose old style business ethic is revulsed by junk traders. That quiet emanation of power and money does net him one thing - an affair with financial writer Judy Chen (Nancy Sun) whose scavenging for information in dark places is no less focused than the Wall Street wolves around her. Leo isn’t the only one who succumbs to the philosophy that “A man is what he has.”
Let’s not pretend that anyone is above deceiving their own tribe. Merkin’s gang is receiving inside information from an informer at Everson; meanwhile Merkin and the slimy Boris Pronsky (Elan Zafir), Prince of Darkness, exchange information to their mutual profit. And if one man can represent all the sadly snookered private citizens who fall prey to hustlers like Merkin (and Madoff) it’s Murray Lefkowitz (Michael Russotto), desperate not to lose millions of his wife’s money.
And then there’s Amy Merkin, (Shanara Gabrielle) wife and lawyer. While her husband doesn’t really care about people losing their jobs, he at least cares about being seen as a ‘job killer.’ She shrugs it off. But even she draws the line at dealings with Pronsky.
We can hail the SEC as they conduct their wire-tapped information gathering campaign, knowing that a well-deserved downfall is imminent. But we are also privy to the secretive deal-making of an ambitious attorney on his way to the N. Y. mayor’s seat. Nothing is off limits. Nothing is sacred – except perhaps the insatiable pursuit of money and its attendant power.
Misha Kachman’s scene design accentuates the Arena space with illuminated square tables anchoring the four corners, and clear “X” aisles where power-tailored assistants hustle files and carts importantly through the center. Lighting by Jason Lyons illuminates with magical realism the two-party telephone conversations, the Manhattan corner office effect, the unnatural light of an empty parking deck, and the public gathering space where a CEO plaintively addressing his employees and stockholders (played by the audience) begs for optimism and a little more time.
This handsome production negotiates the twists and turns of the story at a pace that would be head-spinning but for the clarity of the performances. At its heart, Merkin, the new plastic oracle of finance, claims that “debt is an asset!” and proceeds to bring down lives and fortunes around him while maintaining a firm grip on his own.
Producers may be tempted to hold up this play as a dark mirror to our present age, but it was over 2600 years ago that a prophet named Jeremiah wrote “,,,,from the least to the greatest, everyone is greedy for unjust gain.” Is there anything new under the sun?
WANT TO GO?
What: “Junk” by Ayad Akhtar
Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW Washington, D.C.
Call: (202) 554-9066 or visit arenastage.org
Playing through May 5