Characters with mixed motives can be a great blessing for playwrights. That’s why, I imagine, very few plays will ever be written about the crooked antics of the current Republican administration. The motives of the villains are all too transparent: make billions, rip everybody off as much as possible, and cover your actions by lying through your teeth about how much you care for others. Republicans with doubts — the John McCains and Susan Collinses — are too few in number and too erratic in their judgment to have more than an intermittent effect on the prevailing oligarchical greed.
That condition makes Ayad Akhtar’s new play, Junk, at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, an exceptional work to be produced right now: It dramatizes a time, and a factual story, in which the greedsters who run our financial world actually had — or, at least, believed to some degree that they had — virtuous motives mixed in with their simple selfishness. As a consequence, while nearly every character in Akhtar’s drama is both crooked and very hard to like, it is constantly possible to see the good they thought they were doing, and in a few cases even the modicum of good they actually did. Akhtar is unsparing: He lets nobody off the hook, but he also gives them all full credit. One ironic result is that this play full of people seething with a variety of passions has been thought by some theatergoers to be rather cold. Akhtar’s scrupulous moral bookkeeping can have a distinctly chilling effect.
The story Akhtar has to tell justifies some chills. Junk dramatizes the abrupt rise and rapid fall of one Robert Merkin (Steven Pasquale), a stand-in for the real-life Michael Milken. Those who followed financial news in the Seventies and Eighties will remember the events. Milken, a high-powered bond trader, sent U.S. financial markets into seismic upheavals through his innovative and ruthless use of “junk bonds” — questionable corporate bond issues whose high risk provoked dismally low ratings from financial analysts, and consequently required extravagantly high yields to be salable. Lured by the yields, consumers gobbled them up, ignoring the risk; companies that issued the bonds soon found themselves saddled with cripplingly high levels of debt.
Milken’s followers used the dubious bonds to finance overpriced leveraged buyouts of stagnating companies. These old-line corporations soon found themselves with new owners who cared little for the companies’ products or traditions, and who earned back the excessive purchase price they had paid by selling off the organizations’ most valuable assets, slicing employee rosters and reselling what was left of the battered companies to somebody else — often foreign competitors who found it more advantageous to close U.S. plants than to revitalize them. While the majority of Milken’s transactions were, strictly speaking, not criminal, they often rode close to the edge of legality. Allegations of insider trading and related illegal activities ultimately led, in 1989, to Milken’s prosecution on a multiplicity of charges; he served two years in a federal prison and was permanently barred by the Securities and Exchange Commission from all securities market activities.
Akhtar lets us watch Merkin, Milken’s fictional stand-in, as he and his web of colleagues leverage the takeover of an imaginary company, Everson Steel & United, an old-fashioned, family-run corporation whose profits are sagging in the face of Japanese and Third World steelmakers. The tactics they employ — including not only insider trading but corporate moles and a variety of other shady tactics — are ferocious. Their opponents, after first striking a lofty pose of being ethically above such tricks, don’t hesitate to get down in the dirt themselves (a change caught vividly in Michael Siberry’s sharp performance as an old corporate deal-maker). Milken and many of those he worked with are Jewish; Akhtar doesn’t flinch from pointing out the extent to which their white-shoe opposition harbor, if not open bigotry, at least a residual snobbery against Jews. Milken and his supporters, including some financial historians, have defended his aggressive approach partly with the claim that he succeeded in shaking up an old-boy network whose genteel WASP version of insiderism was no better. The ancillary presence, in Akhtar’s retelling, of smart young women, including an African American lawyer (a complex role subtly played by Ito Aghayere), adds a running reminder of Wall Street’s longstanding gender prejudice to the more explicitly spelled-out ethnic intolerances.
Even on economic matters, Milken has his defenders. They claim that his use of debt to dislodge blocks of corporate capital that had sat unmoved for decades was both profitable and socially beneficial: It generated massive profits for some (including Milken himself) while creating a more fluid market in which new enterprises had a stronger chance. “How do you think J.P. Morgan made the kind of money he did?,” Akhtar’s hero asks. “Rockefeller? Carnegie? They bent the rules. That’s how they made their fortunes. And the world lived with it. No, the world loved it.”
Yet, as Junk’s action makes very clear, not everybody loves — or benefits from — makers of great fortunes. Mass layoffs, an executive suicide, a company in disarray, and a parade of betrayals and recriminations result from Merkin’s maneuvers, along with huge losses for the unlucky. Merkin’s pursuit by Addesso (Charlie Semine), a publicity-hungry D.A. who wants to be mayor, and his grimly principled assistant (Phillip James Brannon) wrecks the lives of a host of participants, with the small fry getting the worst of it. A plea bargain spares Merkin, like his real-life counterpart, the worst of his potential jail time, and lets him keep the bulk of his fortune. (Milken today functions primarily as a philanthropist, funding medical research.)
The story of how Merkin and his crew take down Everson Steel before the government takes them down demands a small army of characters. The frenetic short scenes and short sentences in which Akhtar tells it demand an ultra-precise high-speed production. Director Doug Hughes obliges, driving his game cast — Pasquale, Semine, and Matthew Saldivar among its standouts — at a nerve-jangling tempo. On the bare, cubicle-like sectors of John Lee Beatty’s two-level set, Ben Stanton’s lights sweep the backdrop with fields of changing color abetted by Benjamin Pearcy’s projections, providing a sense of constant motion that matches the urgent tempi of Mark Bennett’s sound design. The actors, handsomely draped in Catherine Zuber’s power suits, often stand motionless, chained to desk telephones; it’s money, a metaphoric force, that does most of the moving around. The stock phrase “Follow the money” might be Junk’s choreographic matrix.
Money is a source of fascination to Akhtar, as it is to many who follow the swings of the world’s financial markets: It played a significant role in his multiple-prize-winning Disgraced and a central one in his powerful The Invisible Hand. Yet it rarely rouses playgoers’ affections; they mainly relish the undoing of those, from Molière’s Harpagon to Hello, Dolly!’s Vandergelder, who have it in abundance. Akhtar’s daring lies in his having populated Junk with characters whose love of money is both passionate and complex, less a matter of mere greed than one of prerogatives, principles, and values. That such a love is misguided, blinding those afflicted with it to so much else in the world, contributes to the play’s melancholy chill, as does Akhtar’s awareness, pointed up in two key late scenes, that most of us will never feel or comprehend it. Money, for most of us, is only a way you get from one thing to another. Nor, ironically, would the billionaires who now control our government be able to understand it. For them, the movement of money holds no fascination; their sole interest is in accumulating it, leaving the rest of us with as little as possible. Even Akhtar would have trouble writing a play about them.