On the striking, in-the-round Vivian Beaumont stage at the Lincoln Center Theater, you see the screens of blinking numbers, and your heart sinks.
Any film or play about Wall Street comes with them: indecipherable, blinking numbers on screens to signal rising stock prices, falling stock prices, or just the fury of the money markets.
From the outset, Junk by Ayad Akhtar feels too familiar to be original—it is yet another play about greedy and venal Wall Street types behaving greedily and venally in the mid-1980s when Junk is set.
Characters are variously housed in two rows of Hollywood Squares-like cells, or stalk to the front of a bare, handsomely lit stage—a dark parody of a game show, perhaps—to assail us with wry observations about capitalism. They also inform us, in their brutal, dense financial argot, about what they are about to do to buy, sell, or destroy.
Each character feels familiar, each set-up feels familiar, the butch tone and swagger feels familiar. If you’ve seen Wall Street, or The Wolf of Wall Street, or Enron, or Margin Call, or Arbitrage, you’ve seen most if not all of the vital elements of Junk.
This is surprising; Akhtar won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Disgraced (2013), a brilliant, firecracker play themed around race, religion, and identity which confronted taboos in all three, furiously and head-on. It was an original play, and a shocking one too. I recall members of the audience crying out, and verbally interjecting, during it.
In Junk, directed by Doug Hughes, Thomas Everson Jr. (Rick Holmes) is the latest-generation owner of a family steel company, based in Allegheny, Pennsylvania.
His brand of capitalism is paternalistic, apparently community-centered and at an absolute variance to that represented by the sharkishness of Robert Merkin (Steven Pasquale), Israel Peterman (Matthew Rauch), and Raúl Rivera (Matthew Saldivar), whose company wants to take out a loan against Everson’s, and use that cash to finance their debt and then come back and buy the steel company.
It sounds both practically absurd and ethically dubious, and when Everson finds out, all he can do is laugh and deride the idea that his company could be bought and taken away from him when he hasn’t even put it up for sale.
But of course, Akhtar’s point is that the excesses and lack of order—the breakdown of commercial and human morality when it comes to such business deals—makes such a deal precisely possible.
Everson’s company makes something, but at his most persuasive Akhtar shows that the new model of capitalism that emerged in the mid-1980s isn’t really about making money from materials like steel. Production isn’t the key to this new wealth, but the transformation of debt payments into income.
The play, we are informed, is a fictionalized account suggested by events in the historical public record. “The characters in this play are dramatic concoctions, stitched together—at times—with details pulled from history, but these characters are never anything other than fictions.”
So, that means what exactly? That Akhtar cherry-picked juicy Wall Street transgressions by figures like Michael Milken, and disguised them a bit for the sake of storytelling?
The problem watching Junk, like a lot of dramas about the financial world and rich people doing deals very quickly and with a lot of macho swearing and the like, is that, unless you are from Wall Street or that world, you may not understand exactly what is going on.
Characters cannot step out of themselves and tell us, and they cannot explain it to each other because the characters know the shorthand of that world and that would be weird. And so they shout and growl, and extemporize as best they can, and we try to keep up.
Their shady deal-making may come with many zeroes, but we see little of any grave human consequence, even if one of those consequences is a jail cell. That too becomes a trading floor.
You might claim that this doesn’t matter. “If it’s really clear what the essential human action of the scene is—somebody’s instructing somebody, somebody’s stealing from somebody, somebody’s betraying somebody else’s confidence,” Akhtar has faith, the Playbill with the show informed us, “the audience will emotionally invest.”
All of those misbehaviors are exhibited in Junk, but the characters feel like ciphers of an overly familiar moment.
Merkin is a pallid villain, who, sure, does bad things, but has a puppyish demeanor while so doing. He seems meek almost, certainly compared to his much sharper wife Amy (Miriam Silverman): a guy in a suit doing what he does. He is not magnetic enough to root for or against; he is no Gordon Gekko or Jordan Belfort. Rauch as his colleague Peterman has a far more terrier-like intensity about him.
Everson is worthy for sure, but Holmes plays his character’s own weakness for laughs, and your heart doesn’t stir for him much when he loses everything. He seems, quite simply, a very lackluster businessman.
We should care about his relationship with adviser Maximilien (Henry Stram), a calming, sensible presence, and Jacqueline (Ito Aghayere), who is playing all sides, but their interactions are mostly as transactional as their deal-making; the same goes for Merkin, Peterman, and Rivera—the play never penetrates beneath their shared dollar signs.
It’s fine to show us these men’s ravenous venality, but a play needs to meaningfully connect us to it too. At moments, particularly around race and racism, the play’s focus welcomingly sharpens.
Junk, simplistically, posits Everson’s capitalism as good, and the junk bond-embracing of Merkin and Co. as bad. That may be true, but Akhtar would have been better to interrogate why. What exactly was the reality of the supposedly well-meaning capitalism Everson’s family parlayed their fortune from; it still involved profit, loss, and exploitation, surely.
The characters do not connect with each other. They state things flatly. They pontificate and hold forth. This is a play of proclamations and stagey poetry, voiced at us, rather than juicy and involving interactions between the characters themselves.
The characters are also inconsistent. A journalist, Judy Chen (Teresa Avia Lim), opens the play with a resounding salvo about capitalism and how fearless she is, but—as a journalist—her questions to interviewees are terrible, and she jettisons her principles for money without a thought.
We are also served up the booming presence of private equity magnate Leo Tresler (Michael Siberry), who is supposed to be an ageing, swaggering lion of gentlemanly capitalism and old school gruffness, even though his speechifying about times past and times changing is hackneyed.
He also seems to be a sexual creep, yet one whom Judy quite happily jumps into bed with.
It also comes as no surprise when investigator Giuseppe Addesso (Charlie Semine) is proven far from incorruptible. He will need the money men, and they him, when he launches his own bid for political power.
Throughout, with the grandiloquent speeches and soliloquies that Akhtar deploys and with the bombastic lighting and staging, it is clear that Junk is straining to be a defining ’80s morality tale.
It is especially evident, with a sly wink, in the last lines, which throw forward to the 2008 financial crisis. This is supposed to be a subversive tease of a premonition, and a predictable antidote to any feeling that the bad will get their just desserts.
In Junk, you long to know why the marriage between Merkin and Amy became the business-everything relationship that it was; or what it is about Judy that makes her jettison her principles so easily; or why Everson is so willfully naïve about the financial marketplace.
What Junk suffers from—a familiar story, and an even more familiar band of character types—means that you don’t root for anyone, and neither do you despise anyone enough for their misdeeds, because the moral framework of the era and setting sanctioned those misdeeds.
The ruthlessness we see in Junk is as by rote as the teary storyline tropes of This Is Us. It doesn’t add anything to our understanding of the dark practices of Wall Street sharks that any other cultural product those sharks have inspired has already told us.
One bright side: What Junk does inspire is a thorough treat of an edition of the Lincoln Center Theater Review, whose Fall 2017 issue, edited by Alexis Gargagliano, features an excellent selection of features themed around elements of the play by Michael Thomas, Malcolm Gladwell, Dana Gioia, and a brilliant interview, by John Guare, of an anonymous billionaire who worked with Milken.
Of his own moral compass, the billionaire says, “I’ve always thought one of the best reasons not to cheat is what if you won the Olympics and you cheated? The rest of your life you would wonder if you could’ve won the Gold Medal without cheating.”
Junk is at the Lincoln Center Theater at The Vivian Beaumont, booking to Jan 7.