Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center Theater
150 West 65th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Ave.
Tuesday - Saturday through January 7, $87-$147
Just because I graduated from Wharton in the 1980s doesn’t mean I understand every intricacy in Ayad Akhtar’s complexly layered Junk, his sizzling-hot excoriation of greed and hostile takeovers, set in 1985. But Akhtar makes the key elements easy to follow, even for me, as a group of men fight it out for control of an Allegheny steel mill — but the last thing on their mind is actually steel, because in this world, it’s money that matters. Akhtar — who won the Pulitzer Prize for Disgraced, a sharp play about race, assimilation, ambition, and bigotry, and whose 2014 drama, The Invisible Hand, put capitalism and religion on trial in Pakistan — refers to Junk as “a ritual enactment of an origin myth,” in this case that of debt financing at the expense of American manufacturing. “When did money become the thing — the only thing?” journalist Judy Chen (Teresa Avia Lim) asks at the beginning. “It was like a new religion was being born.” It might not sound like a sexy topic, but it’s a scorcher in the hands of Tony-winning director Doug Hughes (The Father, Incognito), who orchestrates all the back-room dealings on John Lee Beatty’s dazzling multilevel set, strikingly lit by Ben Stanton. Sacker-Lowell junk bond trader Robert Merkin (Steven Pasquale) is the mastermind behind a hostile takeover of Everson Steel and United, a family-owned business on the Dow. Merkin, who believes that “debt is an asset,” and Sacker-Lowell lawyer Raül Rivera (Matthew Saldivar), who claims that “nothing makes money like money,” are working with corporate raider Israel Peterman (Matthew Rauch) to gain control of Everson Steel, owned by Thomas Everson Jr. (Rick Holmes), who desperately wants to hold on to the Allegheny-based firm founded by his father. Merkin turns to his wife, numbers whiz Amy (Miriam Silverman), for advice while luring in arbitrageur Boris Pronsky (Joey Slotnick) and investor Murray Lefkowitz (Ethan Phillips) to raise the necessary funds and manipulate the market. When old-time private equity magnate Leo Tresler (Michael Siberry) gets wind of Merkin’s plan, he decides to throw his hat in the ring as well. Meanwhile, US attorney Giuseppe Addesso (Charlie Semine) and assistant US attorney Kevin Walsh (Philip James Brannon) are operating behind the scenes, building a case against Merkin and others.
When Akhtar moved to New York City shortly after graduating from Brown, his father offered to pay his rent if he read the Wall Street Journal every day. He immersed himself in newspapers and magazines about business and came to believe that the players in this world were “not moral or immoral but amoral,” he tells co-executive editor John Guare in Lincoln Center Theater Review. In many ways Junk is like a Shakespearean history play about war, complete with lies, betrayal, spies, sex, and blood, where words and actions can be twisted to mean something else. Of course, Akhtar is not exactly the first person to write about how money became a kind of religion, with profit more important than product and people, humanity be damned, but he does so with a graceful style that turns clichés inside out while choosing no real heroes or villains. No one is safe from his skewer, but each man and woman gets to state his or her case free from editorial judgment. That doesn’t mean everyone is equal, that the audience can’t separate good from evil, or that viewers can’t feel sympathy for some characters and disdain for others. Akhtar reveals a socioeconomic level many of us will never be a part of, and most likely wouldn’t want to — although more than a few in the well-heeled Lincoln Center audience at the show we attended rustled uncomfortably in their seats. Talking about Merkin, Tresler tells Chen, “He’s a pawnbroker. And he’s got America in hock,” to which she replies, “Or he’s the new J. P. Morgan.” In many ways Akhtar has created an extremely extended dysfunctional family, with surrogate children, cousins, parents, and grandparents fighting over money, power, and values. “I don’t want to make you mad,” Lefkowitz tells Merkin, as if he doesn’t want to disappoint Daddy. Featuring a strong cast of twenty-three led by fine turns by Pasquale (The Bridges of Madison County, Rescue Me), Siberry (An Enemy of the People, Six Degrees of Separation), Phillips (My Favorite Year, Benson), Slotnick (Dying for It, Boston Public), and Holmes (The Visit, Matilda), Junk might be set thirty-two years ago, but it’s not out-of-date in the least, as income inequality grows around the world, President Trump has just signed a controversial overhaul of the US tax system, and cryptocurrency complicates the market and confuses the masses.