The milieu of Ayad Akhtar’s new play, Junk, seems familiar from works like Wall Street, Enron, and The Big Short, while the rat-tat-tat machismo is reminiscent of David Mamet plays like Glengarry Glen Ross and the occasional reference to a brand or title is a tad American Psycho. So there’s a feeling that some heavy lifting was involved in trying to make the play’s themes surrounding ‘80s greed and corruption fresh. No wonder the Doug Hughes-directed production is flashy and energetic, with very little down time or introspection.
Akhtar’s Disgraced—about religion, race, and political correctness—won him the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. This time, he’s spun a tale around investment banking whiz kid Robert Merkin (Steven Pasquale), who’s known as “American alchemist” for the way he redefines debt as an asset—especially to himself. Merkin—who’s landed on the cover of Time (as is mentioned many times throughout the play)—feels America can be so haughty and condescending about the rest of the world, especially when you consider the fact that other countries seem to be surpassing us in certain arenas, most notably financial ones. For him, junk bonds are the answer, and he—and everyone else—is full of talk about the value and ethics involved in that, as the intricate plot unfolds like a Ponzi scheme.
As the central junk dealer, Pasquale, fortunately, doesn’t resort to moustache twirling tactics—in fact, he almost manages to project a sort of boy-next-door quality beneath the mania, which makes his slithery amorality less obvious and banal. I also liked Teresa Avia Lim as a cunning journalist, though a couple of the supporting male players were directed to overact in a way that proves distracting.
John Lee Beatty’s set is a fluorescent-lit stack-up of hamster boxes with a corporate bent, the net effect being that of a Hollywood Squares set for financial predators and victims. Akhtar serves some worthy insights about money-based machinations in a world full of oppressions and vulnerabilities, but also some heavy-handed attempts at satirical comment.
Ultimately, with its succession of short scenes, the play feels more like a screenplay than a stage drama. Maybe they should make it into a movie and change two of the characters’ names to Mike Milken and Rudy Giuliani.