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 “poison pill” defenses; and the occasional “white knights” prove less than constant. 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 Akhtar’s latest, Junk, takes a deep dive into the morality of worshiping wealth. 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 – 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 – the only thing? Upgrade your place in line, or your prison cell, for a fee. Rent out your womb to carry someone else’s child. Buy a stranger’s life insurance policy – pay the premium until they die then collect the benefit. Oh, and cash. Whose idea was it to start charging us to get cash?
John Lee Beatty has rendered a Bloomberg-terminal screen as a theatrical set for Junk. It flashes, and moves, and reeks of self-important power. 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. 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. At the same time, law enforcement has a come-to-Jesus breakthrough. 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, could be employed to take down the Street’s Gekkos and Milkens.
As a financial journalist, I covered this world. It was crazy dramatic, but until Junk, I’d not thought of it as theatrical, as in legit-stage drama (although Jerry Sterner’s Other People’s Money took a fair run at it in 1989).
This fictionalized account is largely on point — broad strokes, to be sure, but all-in-all accurate in spirit if not detail. That said, turning the “ripped from the financial pages” motif, (pages a fair share of your audience didn’t read in the first place) into a cohesive drama? Yikes! (Does FINRA offer a best drama on financial markets award? The Boesky? The Bull? The Bernie?)
The show paints a realistic picture of how it was. 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. Add to that, little is made of a young woman’s quid-pro-quo transaction of sex for access. Akhtar paints an accurate picture of “just the way things were.” They were, and, regrettably, they still are.
Steven Pasquale plays Robert Merkin with a good deal of grit. He’s the alpha male no one can effectively challenge. Yet, on some level he is beguiling; his conviction and confidence compel you to consider his “wisdom of the markets” position. He embodies the BSDs of the era.
There is a huge cast, 24 people in all, some with several roles. All are good, or bad, as they are written.
The direction is lively, the effects powerful, and, while set in the ‘80s, the moral desert of the money cult and the latter-day “kings” in towers hold a very current punch.
I’d say go.