Review by Kathleen Campion
It is 1989, the last gasp of the go-go eighties, when corporate raiders roam the landscape, attempting hostile takeovers; companies under siege employ âpoison pillâ defenses; and the occasional âwhite knightsâ prove less than constant.Â Oliver Stone had already unmasked (or glorified, depending on where you sit) the greed-is-good ethic that has always informed Wall Street.
At the Vivian Beaumont, Ayad Akhtarâs latest, Junk, takes a deep dive into the morality of worshiping wealth.Â In the very first speech, reporter Judy Chu (Teresa Avia Lim) struts across the stage as our island guide:
This is a story of kings, or what passes for kings these days. Kings, then â bedecked in Brooks Brothers and Brioni, enthroned in sky-high castles, and embroiled in battles over, what else? Money. When did money become the thing â the only thing? Upgrade your place in line, or your prison cell, for a fee. Rent out your womb to carry someone elseâs child. Buy a strangerâs life insurance policy â pay the premium until they die then collect the benefit. Oh, and cash. Whose idea was it to start charging us to get cash?Â
John Lee Beatty has rendered a Bloomberg-terminal screen as a theatrical set for Junk.Â It flashes, and moves, and reeks of self-important power.Â A huge lattice of one-dimensional cubicles stretches deck-to-grid and fill out as offices and trading floors, bedrooms and board rooms.
Two innovations drive the drama.Â Robert Merkin, here a thinly disguised Michael Milken, has figured out how to leverage less-than-investment-grade debt, called junk, and, in so doing, changes the takeover landscape.Â At the same time, law enforcement has a come-to-Jesus breakthrough.Â The U.S. District Attorney for the Southern District of New York, here a thinly disguised Rudolph Giuliani, realizes that instead of relying on the dusty SEC rules on insider trading, the RICO statutes, passed in 1970 to take down organized crime figures, couldÂ be employed to take down the Streetâs Gekkos and Milkens.
As a financial journalist, I covered this world.Â It was crazy dramatic, but until Junk, Iâd not thought of it as theatrical, as in legit-stage drama (although Jerry Sternerâs Other Peopleâs Money took a fair run at it in 1989).
This fictionalized account is largely on point âÂ broad strokes, to be sure, but all-in-all accurate in spirit if not detail.Â That said, turning the âripped from the financial pagesâ motif, (pages a fair share of your audience didnât read in the first place) into a cohesive drama?Â Yikes!Â (Does FINRA offer a best drama on financial markets award?Â The Boesky?Â The Bull?Â The Bernie?)
The show paints a realistic picture of how it was.Â The script is not shy on hate speech nor on misogyny. Much is made of the outsider status of the Jews vis-a-vis access to the white shoe firms.Â Add to that, little is made of a young womanâs quid-pro-quo transaction of sex for access. Akhtar paints an accurate picture of âjust the way things were.â Â They were, and, regrettably, they still are.
Steven Pasquale plays Robert Merkin with a good deal of grit.Â Heâs the alpha male no one can effectively challenge.Â Yet, on some level he is beguiling; his conviction and confidence compel you to consider his âwisdom of the marketsâ position.Â He embodies the BSDs of the era.
There is a huge cast, 24 people in all, some with several roles.Â All are good, or bad, as they are written.
The direction is lively, the effects powerful, and, while set in the â80s, the moral desert of the money cult and the latter-day âkingsâ in towers hold a very current punch.
Iâd say go.