|A scene from the Lincoln Center Theater production of JUNK by Ayad Akhtar.Photo: T. Charles Erickson|
By Ayad Akhtar
Directed by Douglas Hughes
Lincoln Center Theater
Through Jan. 7
By Lauren Yarger
If the world of bond investment leaves you scratching your head, don't be intimidated by Junk, Ayad Akhtar's fascinating new Broadway play at Lincoln Center. You don't have to understand the intricacies of high finance to get the message: selling your soul for money doesn't bring happiness.
Set in 1985, the play focuses on the seemingly limitless ability to create wealth on Wall Street. Steven Pasquale stars as Robert Merkin, the king of Junk Bonds (high yield, higher risk investments), who is poised to make the deal of the decade: the takeover of an iconic American manufacturing company. The character is an homage to real-life Michael Milken, who is credited with inventing the junk bond and to an era when money because the root of everything.
Merkin has it all; a dream career, a successful analyst wife, Amy (Miriam Silverman), who is putting her career on a back burner following the birth of their son, and more money than most of us would know how to spend in a lifetime, but it's not enough. Motivated by the belief that "debt is an asset," he wants more, more, more. He participates in illegal insider trading and puts plans in motion for the takeover of Everson, whose owner, Thomas (Rick Holmes), leaves the company vulnerable by shifting funds around to save the steel manufacturing parts of the company and the jobs and livlihoods it has provided during the three generations his family has been the owner.
Everson vehemently opposes the takeover and thinks that will be enough to stop it. But times have changed and Merkin has re-invented the art of takeover, meaning that Everson needs to find away to buy his own company's stock to stay in control. In a battle that is evocative of power struggles in the best of Shakespeare's royal families, Merkin takes advantage of Boris Pronsky (Joey Slotnick), an old client who reluctantly invests his wife's money against her will.
Merkin's dynasty, built on greed, topples as the feds close in and the junk bond king continues to put his love for money above freedom, friendship and love.
Douglas Hughes expertly directs the large cast of 23 with the vibrant action taking place on John Lee Beatty's compartmentalized set (which cleverly reminds us somewhat of a cash drawer), highlighted by Wall Street figures projected as a backdrop (59 Productions, design).
Pasquale (The Robber Bridegroom, The Bridges of Madison County) impressively steps out of the sympathetic romantic lead role to present a very troubled, almost creepy man obsessed with money. The two-and-a-half-hour script from the Pulitzer-Prize winner for Disgraced is tight and engrossing. If some of the financial dialogue is over the head of the average audience-goer (though perhaps, with the cost of tickets these days, you need profits from bond investments to finance a day at the theater and most people are savvy about high-risk bonds....), the plot can be followed without trouble, and the script, primarily through the character of Judy Chen (Teresa Avia Lim), provides some explanation.
Don't miss this one, playing a limited run through Jan. 7 at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre. Performance times vary. Tickets are $87-$147: lincolncenter.org.
Ito Aghayere, Phillip James Brannon, Tony Carlin, Demosthenes Chrysan, Jenelle Chu, Caroline Hewitt, Rick Holmes, Ted Koch, Ian Lassiter, Teresa Avia Lim, Adam Ludwig, Sean McIntyre, Nate Miller, Ethan Phillips, Matthew Rauch, Matthew Saldivar, Charlie Semine, Michael Siberry, Henry Stram, and Stephanie Umoh.
Catherine Zuber, costumes; Ben Stanton, lighting; Mark Bennett, original music and sound.
-- Strong sexual dialogue
-- God's name taken in vain