Esoteric plays ought to be educational. Why else do them? You should exit Ayad Akhtar’s Junk with a decent grasp of short-selling, debt financing and insider trading. Alas, I recently left the Vivian Beaumont Theater like I left The Big Short, The Wolf of Wall Street and The Wizard of Lies, scratching my head with the same query: Uh…what’s a bond do? Some get the lingo and follow the money through its tortuous routes. Others, like me, stare at Wikipedia for five minutes and instantly forget. And that’s okay, Akhtar says. At the end of Junk, the playwright leaves himself and us a convenient excuse. “That’s how they get you,” says jailed junk-bond trader Robert Merkin (Steven Pasquale), whiling away two years in minimum. “The system’s speaking a different language, a language they know people don’t understand. The second anyone tries to explain it, their eyes glaze over.” In other words, if the preceding two hours and 20 minutes sounded like gibberish, that’s the point.
Okay, I’m playing semi-dumb. With rat-a-tat exposition and arias packed with spoon-fed facts, Akhtar does a fairly good job outlining the stakes of his slick, high-finance drama, which is set in 1985 and revolves around the hostile takeover of a Pennsylvania steel company through stock-market manipulation and other shady practices. Merkin is a ruthless leverage pirate who buys and flips vulnerable companies. How’s it work? I’ll let his rival, the old-school private-equity manager Leo Tressler (Michael Siberry) explain: “He raises money by selling debt against a company’s assets. Then he gives that money to some two-bit nobody to buy the company. Once they own it, that company is weighed down with debt it can’t pay back. Which becomes the excuse for Merkin and his cronies to go in, chop it up, sell it off. He works every side of the deal. He makes fees raising the money. Makes fees lending it. Makes money off the purchase, off the sale. They can’t print the bills fast enough for this guy. It’s a racket.” Got it?
A barrage of mostly short blackout scenes whisk us from Merkin’s headquarters in Los Angeles to Everson Steel in Allegheny, Pennsylvania and New York City, gradually revealing a complex picture of how the markets are goosed by arbitrageurs like Boris Pronsky (Joey Slotnick) and Mark O’Hare (Ted Koch). Buying huge blocks of stock, they dangle the promise of fat dividends to strong-arm boards to make management decisions. Thus, Thomas Everson Jr (Rick Holmes, pure WASP starch), whose family founded Everson Steel, finds himself in the humiliating position of taking orders from total strangers, just because they bought shares. Even as Merkin, Pronsky and other confederates prepare the grounds for a corporate raid, the Feds are closing in with charges of insider trading. Narrating from the sidelines is Judy Chen (Teresa Avia Lim), a sly, idealistic reporter researching a book about Merkin and his dubious gospel of debt. One of Akhtar’s neatest story arcs follows Chen being seduced and corrupted by the world she meant to expose. A fast and flashy play about equally speedy and gaudy money-movers, Junk means to be a crash course in crashing the market, and a prequel to our economic spasms of the past decade.
Which means, in terms of stagecraft, that data trumps character. The play has a lot in common with its predecessor in the Vivian Beaumont, J.T. Rogers' Middle East diplomacy nail-biter Oslo. Both dramas tackle subjects that may be unfamiliar to the average audience member, and they’re packed with facts and figures, shoe-horned into scenes and pumped with testosterone-rich confrontations to make it all seem urgent and conflict-y. We get “Are you threatening me?” not once but twice, and plenty of shouting and profanity to spice up the trading-floor number crunching. The language of Junk (like Oslo) is a contrived yet engaging pastiche of business jargon, epigrammatic zingers and clever, Stoppard-esque arias on complex systems. “What is debt, but the promise to pay?” Merkin serenades Chen. “From that promise, everything else flows. Debt is the nothing that gives birth to everything.” It’s pure sophistry, but elegantly spun. The best parts of Junk are when Akhtar lets his Shaw flag fly and puts the most revolutionary attitudes in his villain’s mouth: Merkin variously claims that he’s fighting the white establishment to bring minority players into the game; or in a second-act speech, he vigorously denounces the idea of American industrial exceptionalism.
Of course, Merkin is finally no different from Willy Loman or Gordon Gekko: He wants money, power and respect. If Akhtar had spent more energy on character, he might have created a truly memorable stage creature in Merkin, not just a glib egomaniac. There are nearly two dozen characters running around the play, but none is particularly likeable or memorable. Mind you, that’s not a deal-breaker; Junk is entertaining stuff, and design-wise, wisely eschews ’80s kitsch, which could let us distance ourselves from its moral. Director Doug Hughes delivers a high-energy staging on John Lee Beatty’s unit set – a glossy black box gridded out by pulsing strings of light. Pasquale makes for a blandly handsome sociopath and Siberry joyfully gobbles scenery as the good-old-boy financier. But there’s little here you’d call revelatory. Greed is evergreen; everyone has her price; Wall Street criminals rarely get punished; and our economy is lashed to a perpetual boom-and-bust Ferris wheel. Even a fiduciary ignoramus might wonder if Junk tells us anything we don’t already know.
David Cote is an arts journalist, playwright and opera librettist based in New York.