The image that greets us as we settle into our seats at the Vivian Beaumont Theater is a wall of numbers, divided into blocks, four over four, a grid with line after line of numbers. It’s the opposite of welcoming. It’s precisely where our minds tend to go when we’re told, It’s a story about finance. MEGO – you know the phrase: my eyes glaze over. If you’re like me, you think, this is Greek to me. And if you actually understand the underpinnings of the story of the crashes of the eighties and the aughts, of what it means to bundle debt and sell it like toilet paper, then you probably think, This will be simplistic and get it all wrong.
So it’s a clever deception, this wall of numbers created by designer John Lee Beatty, who is much better known for sets that look like places where people actually live. The people who live in the world of Ayad Akhtar’s Junk, which opened tonight at Lincoln Center Theater, have heads full of numbers, closets hung with hand-tailored suits and barrels, barges, of cash. They live in architected apartments that look like high-end hotel suites and guzzle Ch. Petrus like so much soda pop. Their children roll through parks in tank-like perambulators pushed by nannies with back-up nannies. Not that I’m envious.
We’ve met these folks in films (Wall Street, Wolf of Wall Street) and books (Bonfire of the Vanities, Liar’s Poker, Barbarians at the Gate) and even in the rare play (Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money and Fen; Jerry Sterner’s Other People’s Money), some of which also were repurposed as films. Junk accomplishes something none of these did, because Akhtar, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Disgraced and Olivier and Obie winner for The Invisible Hand, is neither a satirist nor a comedian, at least not in the usual sense. He’s a caster of spells, which is possibly the only way into the gripping tale he tells here, of unchecked greed, metastatic avarice and compulsive social bulldozing.
It’s 1985. Robert Merkin (Steven Pasquale, sparking like a live wire on stormy night) raises cash to finance the leveraged buyouts orchestrated by Israel – Izzy – Peterman (Matthew Rauch, coolly ferocious). The money is raised through the sale of junk bonds, high-risk instruments that promise high returns but are more likely to prove worthless to investors dumb enough to think they’re in it for the long haul, which is the way of the stock market. Junk bonds are for short-sellers with brass gonads (and, essentially, a reliable connection to insider information).
Izzy’s firm, Saratoga-McDaniels, has set its sights on Everson Steel and United, a steel-maker that has diversified into pharmaceuticals and other businesses in a foundering effort to bolster the main operation. You can imagine that the workforce at the steel plant looks a lot like the people in Lynn Nottage’s Sweat: second- and third-generation employees numbed and demoralized and exhausted by the incremental attrition of wages and benefits in a faltering economy that can’t compete with global competition. The owner, Thomas Everson (Rick Holmes, beautifully conveying the punch-drunk look of someone who doesn’t quite know what hit him) is incredulous when his lawyer (the redoubtable Henry Stram) tells him they’re the object of a hostile takeover. Tom has been hiding details of the faltering steel side of the business in the ledgers of the ancillaries, which Izzy and Robert have discovered. Having determined the weak spot, they go in for the kill.
Raising the capital to finance the takeover requires Robert to press his investors for cash, secure the co-operation of an analyst (Joey Slotnick, with the frightened look of a human widget used to doing what he’s told) who’s in on the deal to boost the stock price, and assure his wife (Miriam Silverman, who really really wants to trust him) that everything’s on the up and up.
No one gets out of Junk alive, including a journalist (Teresa Avia Lim) who cozies up to the blow-hard rival financier (Michael Siberry, hilariously venal) determined to take Izzy & company down because they’re so…so, well, nouveau.
And therein lies the crux of Akhtar’s remarkable achievement. Junk may have no heroes, but it is searingly human. Akhtar has repeatedly shown a gift for creating individuals free of the kind of stereotyping that has marked so many accounts of the financial corruptions and collapse of the ’80s (and which is unsettlingly evident in some of the dog-whistle commentary Lincoln Center Theatre provides in its journal, Lincoln Center Theater Review, accompanying this show). Methodically dismantling the false nostalgia for benevolent, old-shoe firms, Akhtar refuses to paint in broad strokes, just as he did in the explosive Disgraced. Accordingly, Doug Hughes has staged the play with infinite detail and a kind of exquisite filigree in the way characters are motivated and defined. (Credit also the pinpoint lighting by Ben Stanton and the elegantly specific clothes by Catherine Zuber.)
And so Junk unfolds with the mounting tension of a Shakespearean tragedy. In this case, however, most of the victims are offstage, in the ruined lives of workers who will lose everything when, inevitably, Everson Steel and United is stripped of its assets, buried in debt and sold off for crumbs while sleekly draped profiteers have their names carved and gilded on public monuments to their philanthropy, just as their nouveau forbears did a century earlier, and for centuries before that.