Junk, a new play from Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar (Disgraced), makes the world of 1980s finance utterly riveting, despite a relatively predictable plot.
As investment firm big shot Robert Merkin, Steven Pasquale (The Bridges of Madison County) and his impressive brow lead a staggeringly large 23-person cast in a tangled saga, as Merkin’s company attempts to buy a failing American steel company using the then-relatively new — and certainly controversial — method of trading on junk bonds. Merkin, whose recent Time magazine cover is frequently referenced by the other characters, is a genius to some: Bending the rules of the system to evolve with the times in the same way he believes Rockefeller and Carnegie once did. But to others, like Thomas Everson, Jr. (Rick Holmes), the good-hearted CEO of the aforementioned steel company, and old school financier Leo Tresler (white-haired standout Michael Siberry), Merkin is a swindler and a crook.
While Merkin tries to make this sale on behalf of slick but not-quite-savvy businessman Izzy Peterman (Matthew Rauch), Everson frets about the fate of his company’s miners on the ground in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, intrepid reporter Judy Chen (Teresa Avia Lim) works on a tell-all book about the industry’s underbelly, and the feds (led by Phillip James Brannon’s detective Kevin Walsh) attempt to crack down on the rampant insider trading and shady dealings that make Merkin’s deals possible.
We’re meant to feel complicated about these characters and each one’s morality: Merkin’s not all bad if he really thinks he’s changing the industry for the better, right? Judy isn’t 100 percent objective if she’s dating one of her interview subjects, eh? And might Thomas Everson, the only person worried about how the sale of his company will affect his suffering miners, not be as good a man as he seems?
But despite Akhtar’s attempts to complicate our feelings, it’s difficult not to see these already rich people pushing numbers around (numbers built on shaky foundations, at that) and tearing apart family-owned businesses as the bad guys. Maybe the point is that everyone is the bad guy — and what are we supposed to do with that?
Still, it’s an enthralling production: John Lee Beatty’s grid of a set is like an Excel spreadsheet come to life — and when those illuminated cubes are combined with Doug Hughes’ direction, Ben Stanton’s lighting, and Mark Bennett’s sound, they can make a board meeting feel as dramatic as the Super Bowl. And despite each character’s path seeming inevitable, their choices — or lack thereof — will stick with you long after the final bow. B+