Unless you are a math whiz or a business major, you may be bewildered by the financial concepts that are the underpinnings of Junk, the new play at Lincoln Center by Pulitzer-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar (Disgraced). However, as the play unfolds, you will find yourself thoroughly engaged.
Junk is a fast-moving, intriguing look at the financial boom of the 1980s and an upstart financial wunderkind, Robert Merkin. Using debt instruments, Merkin (a fine Steven Pasquale) plans a takeover of Everson Steel. Merkin will manipulate the stock, cajole investors and use junk bonds to finance the sale. (Hey, don’t ask me -- I majored in English.) He masterminds the takeover using his friend Israel “Izzy” Peterman as the figurehead. Behind the scenes, Boris Pronsky (Joey Slotnick) manipulates the stock. Merkin explains that “Debt is a promise to pay. Money is the US government’s promise to pay." The three are all “outsiders”, which in this play is euphemistic for Jewish and when the Establishment verbally attack them, it is with veiled ethnic slurs.
At first the play seemed reminiscent of the movie Pretty Woman, where the character played by Richard Gere buys companies only to break them up and sell them in pieces. However, that character finds redemption; not so here.
The show has a large cast but there are few characters to root for -- very few consciences and scruples. Even if they begin idealistically, they eventually sell out for the right price. Judy, a journalist, is writing a book about Merkin but is convinced by an offer of three million dollars to scrap her manuscript. One of Everson’s lawyer’s is a mole for Merkin. The DA only pursues the case when he realizes that it may further his political aspirations of becoming mayor and perhaps president. (The lady next to me whispered, “That’s Giuliani.”) Those who recall actual events of the mid-80s will note the comparison to real-life figures Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky -- it’s a financial deja vu.
Pasquale does a fine job as the clever manipulative Merkin. Most of the time Pasquale is strong, tough and relentless. Yet other times he shows a sensitivity. Merkin shows no remorse about people losing their jobs, but instead rationalizes that the jobs should disappear if Americans aren’t making the best products.
Tom Everson (Rick Holmes) is the most compelling character. He worries about losing the business his family has created and genuinely cares about the steel workers who will lose their jobs.
Junk is fast-moving, with Aaron Sorkin-like dialogue. It is engaging and intelligent. The show is well-directed by Doug Hughes and simply staged. Pieces of furniture slide out and then retract -- an office chair, a restaurant banquette, a bed. Often, though, the characters simply stand on the bare stage and talk with each other.
You may not like anyone or even understand the financial lessons, but the themes in the play are repeated year after year (think: bad mortgage loans). Junk will teach you that for some people, money is warfare. So stay out of the way.