REVIEW: “Junk”—Ayad Akhtar’s Financial Thriller

REVIEW: “Junk”—Ayad Akhtar’s Financial Thriller

It’s fitting that “Junk”, the new play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar (“Disgraced”), opened at Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont on Broadway just two days after Halloween, because, at its core, it is a horror story. 

There is no gore and there are no ghosts.  Instead, scarier, the play is a searing indictment of our economy and our society, a pulsing thriller that presents a frightening narrative of how we, the richest nation in the world and a once-unquestionable beacon of democracy, have devolved into a soulless, amoral people obsessed with wealth, power, and privilege as integrity, meaning, and purpose fade to dust. 

Yes, it is that dark and hopeless, but “Junk”—so named not for garbage but for the high-risk, high-yield financial instruments at the heart of its plot—is also, guiltily-so, a deeply engrossing and wild ride.  A thriller about financial instruments?  You bet.  I found myself on the edge of my seat several times during this play, which beats out like a good crime procedural, except the victim is our economy, and perhaps even our future.

It’s the free-wheeling, high-rolling mid-1980s, an inflection point in our country’s economic history from which there has been no return.  Robert Merkin (a fictionalized Michael Milken), is “America’s alchemist” who turns debt into cash, orchestrating hostile takeovers of increasingly prestigious American corporations, working every side of every deal for his clients and for himself, and taking a hefty cut of all the profits in the process.  Unlike the current occupant of the White House, this guy actually knows the art of the deal.  And, of course, there’s a healthy dose of insider-trading, betrayal, fraud, and racketeering going on.

“Junk” follows the dramatic lifespan of one colossal deal as scrappy upstarts plot the takeover of Everson Steel, an Allegheny, PA company that has expanded to pharmaceuticals and finance of late to balance the books amidst a declining manufacturing economy.  The contours of the deal shift and change as it wends its way toward a completion you see coming from the start; despite the thick jargon employed, the course of the takeover is easy to follow, thanks to good writing by Mr. Akhtar and clear direction by Doug Hughes.  But don’t ask me to map it out.  Ultimately, the details are not important.  This isn’t business school (or law school for that matter), it’s the theatre, where ideas ring supreme.

There is an abundance of intrigue and drama coiled up in this story.  Mr. Akhtar has written, I imagine, the kind of play Shakespeare might pen if he were alive today, not because of its poetry but because of its plot and thematic exploration. Dueling titans of industry.  Double agent lawyers and henchmen.  Merkin’s Lady Macbeth-like wife goading behind the scenes.  Power, sex, and money.  

This play is notable not for the morality or immorality of its characters, but rather their amorality in service to Mr. Akhtar’s larger point about how the system, nay, all systems—business, law, politics, labor—are constructed.  No character is a paragon, no side good, no side bad, all morally compromised, which, of course, makes for a good play if not a horrifying reality.

Merkin is doing deals that don’t need to be done, which don’t create anything other than further concentrated wealth and a hollowing out of the blue-collar working class.  Then again, he’s “living in the market”, not clinging to a blind “American Made” nostalgia unwilling to question or adapt to a changing economy.  He’s also a Jew, breaking into a world created by and for rich, white, straight, Protestant men.  You can’t help but root for him while simultaneously hating his guts. 

His enemies give lip service to fighting for the little guy, but they’re ultimately fighting to protect their own privileged status, and brandish an easy anti-Semitism that is wince-inducing.  The disconnect between executives and labor, and labor and its own self-interest, is stark.  There are no heroes, only tragic figures.  An FBI-sting operation trails Merkin and his cronies, aptly concluding that the real victim here is “the system”.  And Mr. Akhtar has done a commendable job presenting this story, our fate—and one in which we are powerless.

It’s not the playwright’s role to cure society’s ills; we leave that to the politician.  But like many a politician, Mr. Akhtar is quite skilled at pointing out problems.  Nestled in this story is the root of how such oxymoronic institutions as private prisons and for-profit education came to be.  How valuing stockholder wealth over everything else, even the health of our society, is the unquestioned norm.  And how the psychology of the market conflicts with the demands of a democracy.  Mapped over these large questions is a discourse on race, gender, and power, lending the play an added dimension.

“A man is what he has”, says Leo Tresler, Merkin’s chief rival.  It’s an honest admission of our national mindset and a telling critique of the telos of this wealth-obsessed 1980s ethos.  

“Junk” soars when examining the moral ambiguity of its players, challenging biases and toying with assumptions (whatever they might be).  Tackling the depth and breadth of an economy in one play is no easy task.  “Junk” can be bloated at times, and features a seemingly endless denouement required by the many strings of its plot.  I resented the intermission, which disrupted the tension and exciting pace of the play, but otherwise found it terrifyingly captivating, like slowing down on the highway to observe an accident.  Except, the cars are America, and their drivers our doomed populace.  

There is no hope to be found in “Junk”, only the painful realization that we are living in the world Merkin created.

Bottom Line: “Junk” is a fast paced, financial thriller set in the 1980s that explores how our debt-laden, wealth-obsessed society came to be.  There are no heroes and no hope to be found in this excellent new play by Ayad Akhtar (“Disgraced”), only a cautionary tale whose lesson it is too late to learn.  

Lincoln Center Theater
at the Vivian Beaumont
50 Lincoln Center Plaza
New York, NY  10023

Running Time: 2 Hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: November 2, 2017
On Sale Through: January 7, 2018
Discount Tickets or Digital Lottery

tl;dr for November 6th

NOTES: A Newly Resonant “Of Thee I Sing” at Carnegie Hall

NOTES: A Newly Resonant “Of Thee I Sing” at Carnegie Hall