Broadway Review: Ayad Akhtar’s ‘Junk’

The ’80s are back with a vengeance in “Junk,” the Pulitzer-winning playwright's chilling memento of that heady era on Wall Street.

Maybe, someday, we can live down the 1980s. But not any day soon, if Ayad Akhtar has anything to do with it. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (“Disgraced”) returns with poisoned pen and sharpened knives to that era of wretched excess in “Junk,” a rehash of the inside trading, hostile takeovers, junk bond sales, and other questionable business practices that turned the staid financial marketplace into a vulgar go-go disco.

Something momentous happened on Wall Street in the mid-1980s. “I sensed something new,” one character remembers, “the rollick, the rage, the ravenous zeal in people’s eyes. It was like a new religion was being born.”

“Junk” doesn’t exactly illuminate the mysterious process whereby corporate marauders ruthlessly eviscerate and in due course take over companies that resist their takeover bids. What it does do, in this slickly directed production directed by Doug Hughes, is capture the electric energy that fueled these aggressive acquisitions, along with the intoxicating sense of power that blinded the raiders to all other principles and values.

John Lee Beatty’s bi-level boxed set and Ben Stanton’s laser-beam lighting divide the stage into rigid compartments. These the individual players claim for themselves, only rarely sharing their private spaces for teamwork tasks.  Disclaimers are made that the 20-or-so characters in this busily detailed play aren’t based on real-life people. But it seems obvious that the protagonist is standing in the Italian-made shoes of the Junk Bond King, Michael Milken, the Drexel Burnham Lambert investment banker who created and came to exemplify the free-for-all culture of greed — until he went to prison for securities fraud.

Steven Pasquale (“The Bridges of Madison County”) nimbly plays the Milken lookalike, Robert Merkin, with boyish eagerness that quickly coarsens into wild-eyed obsession.  But his enthusiasm for the dark arts is infectious, and soon all the other boys want to play this game, too. Their collective lust becomes so overwhelming, the whole industry smells like a locker room.

In a nutshell, the whole scheme hinges on debt financing. “Debt is an asset,” Merkin announces. But debt is not an asset; debt is debt – until Merkin works his alchemy and turns it into real money. This means driving up the stock of the target company by selling junk bonds to would-be investors attracted by the buzz. With the real money of these investors in the house, the alchemist can now take over the target, chop it up and sell off its assets.

The dramatic action, such as it is, involves Merkin’s campaign to take over Everson Steel, a small company run by its third-generation chairman, Thomas Everson, Jr., who doesn’t stand a chance of survival but is nonetheless played with backbone by Rick Holmes. The only emotional heat in this chilly show comes from Everson’s desperate efforts to raise enough money to resist a takeover and maintain control of the family firm. But there’s a traitor in the house (known as the Prince of Darkness and played with proper sleaziness by Joey Slotnick), and Everson’s efforts to play by the old, honorable rules of business are doomed, doomed, doomed.

There are loads of other characters on stage, and some of them stand out from all the other bankers, lawyers, traders, board chairmen, and functionaries who come and go. Matthew Rauch and Matthew Saldivar share a funny strategy session as two lawyers in Merkin’s firm struggling to learn the lingo of the new business procedures. And Michael Siberry is impressive as a gentleman of the old school who thinks he can accommodate the new practices and still hang onto his principles.

But none of these secondary characters are as fully developed as the two lead players, which makes it practically impossible to care about their moral misgivings and ethical conflicts; if, indeed, they even have any. So, for a show with far too many people on stage, “Junk” is actually in need of more people – maybe one or two of them with a heart.

Broadway Review: ‘Junk’
Lincoln Center Theater / Vivian Beaumont; 1059 seats; $147 top. Opens Nov. 2, 2017. Reviewed Oct. 27. Running time: TWO HOURS, 20 MIN. 

Production
A Lincoln Center Theater, in arrangement with the Araca Group, presentation of a play in two acts by Ayad Akhtar, originally produced by La Jolla Playhouse.

CreativeDirected by Doug Hughes. Sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Ben Stanton; original music & sound, Mark Bennett; projections, 59 Productions; production manager, Paul Smithyman; production stage manager, Charles Means.

Cast
Steven Pasquale, Matthew Rauch, Matthew Saldivar, Michael Siberry, Joey Slotnick, Ito Aghayere, Phillip James Brannon, Tony Carlin, Demosthenes Chrysan, Jenelle Chu, Caroline Hewitt, Rick Holmes, Ted Koch, Teresa Avia Lim, Ian Lassiter, Adam Ludwig, Sean McIntyre, Nate Miller, Ethan Phillips, Charlie Semine, Miriam Silverman, Henry Stram, Stephanie Umoh.