After a high-flying decade on Wall Street, Michael Milken, known as the junk-bond king, was indicted for securities fraud in an insider-trading investigation in 1989. By then, he had made many millions of dollars for his investment banking firm as well as for himself and shepherded a boom in leveraged buyouts and other financial hijinks, which either transformed the American economy or left it crippled and bleeding, depending on your perspective.
Now Ayad Akhtar has used Milken’s experience to create his new play, “Junk,” at Lincoln Center. “Junk” presents the central character, Robert Merkin, as a brilliant, arrogant, and ultimately destructive force.
Determined to take over a traditional steel company in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, for his client, Izzy Peterman, Merkin begins to manipulate the company’s stock with the help of a shady associate, Boris Pronsky. (Any similarity to arbitrageur Ivan Boesky surely is intentional.) Merkin’s original proposition is that a company’s cash flow can be considered collateral in order to borrow huge sums of money, and that money then can be used to buy the company. The steel company’s third-generation owner, Thomas Everson, can’t believe he’s listening to such nonsense, but before he knows it, Merkin and his pals have made the company’s stock price rise dramatically and then fall precipitously. The board is unnerved, and Everson is guilt-stricken about what will happen to the workers who have been with the plant for decades. A white knight is sought to buy the company, but will he be able to stand up to Merkin’s chutzpah?
Directed crisply by Doug Hughes, “Junk” has the satisfying structure of a “Law and Order” episode. We know the good guys and bad guys, and there isn’t much ambiguity about who to root for. Akhtar gives Merkin the most interesting speech in the play at the beginning of the second act. As Merkin, Steven Pasquale scorns the arguments of the legacy manufacturers and bankers who insist that American business and labor must be protected. Who says that American steel is better than Chinese steel, he demands, and why should an American father’s desire to provide for his family trump an Indian father’s desire to do the same? Trump is the operative word, of course, because Merkin’s trust in the power of global capitalism stands in direct contrast to the America First prescriptions of the current occupant of the White House. In that sense, the 1980s brought us the presidency of Donald Trump. Many of the people who lost jobs and money and faith in the American promise of ever-rising affluence voted for Donald Trump to “make America great again.”
Akhtar skims some fascinating issues here: Is there any actual value to finance, or is it just clever kids shuffling money around? Is making things, such as steel, morally superior to money shuffling? Why? Since capitalism always creates winners and losers, should we be concerned about who wins and who loses? The play hints at all these questions, but Akhtar is too focused on the nuts and bolts of Merkin’s fall to dig deeply. These are essentially moral, therefore religious, matters, pitting material against spiritual values.
John Lee Beatty’s minimalist set and Ben Stanton’s lighting design contribute mightily to the play’s momentum, and for the most part, the large cast is excellent. Pasquale certainly captures Merkin’s cockiness and intense competitiveness. Akhtar is the author of two other plays produced at Lincoln Center, the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Disgraced” — about a Muslim mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer — and “The Who and the What.” He is sensitive to the delicate situation of minorities trying to navigate worlds that may be hostile despite insisting otherwise. As a Jew, Merkin is introducing new ideas into a largely static, traditional gentile world. Is the resistance he encounters due to his ideas or to his Jewishness?
“Junk” does not shy away from the covert and overt anti-Semitism infusing American society, nor does it cast Merkin and Peterman as heroic advocates for fairness. Everyone in the play is scrabbling to get ahead, including U. S. Attorney Giuseppi Adesso, the character based on Rudy Giuliani, the government official who indicted Michael Milken and then went on to be mayor of New York City. “Junk” tells the tale of someone who might be a “shanda far di goyim” or the smartest guy in the room.