Ayad Akhtar’s last play, The Invisible Hand, skewered market capitalism by demonstrating how even the most ideologically resistant—in that case, Islamic terrorists—can fall prey to its seduction. Now, in Junk, he returns to the same subject, but this time his focus is on the scene of the crime itself: Wall Street in the mid-1980s, when debt was first transformed into wealth and “junk bonds” made a slew of regulation-baiting investors very wealthy.
At the center of this game is Robert Merkin (Steven Pasquale), an aggressive trader unsettling the “big machers” whose rules have long prevented industrious Jews like Merkin from ascending the ranks of Wall Street. Along with fellow members of the tribe and other outsiders, including his Cuban lawyer (Matthew Saldivar), Merkin takes out loans against businesses, then uses those loans to buy the businesses and raid their assets. Thus, his next big prize, Everson Steel and United, could swap in its failing mines for more lucrative enterprises, including the sale of pharmaceuticals. With the barbarians at the gates of high finance, Thomas Everson (Rick Holmes), the founder’s grandson, battles to retain control of his company through the help of an angel investor, Leo Tresler (Michael Siberry); Tresler, a “dinosaur,” sees in Merkin the demise of American business.
Like Oslo, which played the Vivian Beaumont Theater before it, Junk is a panoramic look at its subject, here a system that rewards high-risk ventures and practically demands that investors value earnings over production: in other words, Everson Steel is more valuable when it creates money instead of building materials. In fact, all individual marks of identity seem to melt before the quarterly earnings. “[T]he only thing we care about more than race in America?” Merkin tells the Wall Street Journal reporter Judy Chen (Teresa Avia Lim). “Is wealth.” Indeed, he has even abandoned his own loyalties. In a mix of pride and self-hatred, Merkin declares, “I’m not Jewish. I’m better.”
Now, these kinds of texts can be tricky, especially when they condense a great deal of complex relationships into a tight two and a half hours. There are dozens of characters here—and the subject may not seem intuitively dramatic—but Mr. Akhtar masterfully weaves together a collection of journalists, lawyers, businessmen, and traders to create a portrait of American wealth that is compelling, illuminating, and relevant all at once. Steel, of course, is in the news again, but the real Rosebud here is debt, and it is inevitable (if a little lazy) that Merkin will connect the dots and reformulate his scheme for the housing market. Still, this format is new for Mr. Akhtar, whose past work has focused instead on small groups of individuals. His fluency here demonstrates, once again, that we are witnessing the artistic development of one of America’s greatest young playwrights.