“Greed Is Not So Good”
Pulitzer-Prize playwright Ayad Akhtar (Disgraced) clearly did his research for Junk, his sprawling, nearly two dozen-character drama about the trader eats trader world of corporate takeovers, high-risk junk bonds, insider trading, code words, white knights, and other manifestations of Wall Street in the 1980s.
If you’re anything like me, you may want to do some research—the program offers zilch assistance—to help you follow all the jargon and calculations, spoken at Mach speed. What passes for daily conversation among the play’s Dow Jones crowd sounds to the average person like a foreign language using English words.
Regardless, Junk, which premiered in L.A. last year when its title was Junk: The Golden Age of Debt, manages to make sufficiently clear the machinations (and their toll) of our nation’s greedmeisters in playing with investors’ pocketbooks in order to rake in the millions, if not billions, that line the purses of what we now call the one percent. Fans of the movies Wall Street, The Wolf of Wall Street, or Margin Call, TV’s “Billions,” or a bunch of plays, including Serious Money and Other People’s Money, however, will find it not up to the high standards of those works.
|Matthew Rauch, Steven Pasquale. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.|
Set in 1985 in New York, Los Angeles, and Allegheny, PA, Junk is a drame à clef in which the central character is super financier Robert Merkin (Steven Pasquale, a fine singer-actor but too one-note here), whose business dealings and downfall are inspired by those of “Junk Bond King” Michael Milken, imprisoned and heavily fined on multiple RICO charges in 1989. Theatregoers knowledgeable about Milken’s high wire adventures in high finance will enjoy spotting theatrical avatars of people involved on both sides of the law in his shenanigans.
|Phillip Jsmes Brannon (left), Joey Slotnick (center), Charley Semine (right). Photo: T. Charles Erickson.|
As we see in his scenes with his wife, Amy (Miriam Silverman, in another fine performance), Merkin, like Milken, is essentially a decent man (Milken used his money for many philanthropic causes and had high ideals) enslaved to a lust for money-at-almost any cost. He also, frankly enough, speaks against the economic nationalism and American exceptionalism we’ve been hearing so much about.
Just as Milken and his cohorts’ maneuverings caught the eye of the SEC and Rudolph Giuliani, then United States Attorney for the Southern District Court, so do the activities of Merkin and his associates (such as the Ivan Boesky-like Boris Pronsky [Joey Slotnick]) attract the notice of an investigator named Kevin Walsh (Phillip James Brannon) and, higher up, the politically ambitious Giuseppe Addesso (Charlie Semine).
|Matthew Saldivar, Ito Aghayere. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.|
Doug Hughes’s production at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont drives the action like a race car, the engine’s roaring captured in the high-decibel, 300-horsepower performances of almost every character. You get little opportunity to ponder the nuances of the fiscal and legal patois as Akhtar steers us down the twisting road of bond trading and the hostile takeover of a Pennsylvania steel conglomerate by driving up its stock prices.
|Henry Stram, Rick Holmes. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.|
Thomas Everson, Jr. (Rick Holmes, very credible), whose family founded the company, but who’s cooked the books to keep it afloat, fights the takeover with the support of white knight Leo Tresler (Michael Siberry, always shouting). The results are tragic for Everson and thousands of workers.
Despite the production’s shiny surfaces, including a sleek, abstract set by John Lee Beatty showing ten compartments on two levels, and flashy lighting (Ben Stanton), projections (59 Productions), and sound (Mark Bennett), the play never fully humanizes the characters or makes Merkin’s intrigues all that compelling.
|Teresa Avia Lim, Michael Silberry. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.|
More entertaining than the financial finagling is a subplot involving an affair between the aging Tresler and the much younger Judy Chen (Teresa Avia Lim), who climaxes under the aphrodisiacal power of Tresler’s self-made wealth. Judy, a presumably ethical, Asian-American journalist writing a hatchet job on the financial industry, eventually buries the hatchet for a conventionally unethical payoff, amusingly described in one of the script’s final moments.
Many theatregoers will be greedy for more such moments.
Vivian Beaumont Theater/Lincoln Center
150 W. 65th St., NYC
Through January 7