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Theatre in Review: Junk (Lincoln Center Theater/Vivian Beaumont Theater)

Matthew Rauch, Steven Pasquale. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

"When did money become the thing -- the only thing?" So asks Judy Chen, a young journalist who, along with many others, will find herself caught up in the widening gyre of the insider trading scandal that lies at the center of Junk. The answer, she posits, is 1985, the year that "I sensed something new. The rollick, the rage -- the ravenous zeal in people's eyes. It was like a new religion was being born." The high priest of the cult is Robert Merkin, a junk bond specialist, who is called "America's alchemist" by Time Magazine for "turning debt into cash. From nothing, something." Merkin is the master of financial market funny business, and his adventures in arbitrage constantly rewrite the rules of finance. A true believer in the gospel of the free market, he is in it for the thrill of the game -- and, one suspects, because he enjoys breaking things.

As Junk begins, Merkin is plotting his latest caper: helping Israel Peterman, owner of California-based Saratoga McDaniel, to take over -- in a hostile move, if necessary -- Everson Steel, a family-owned manufacturing giant. Saratoga McDaniel is the future of American capitalism, a drugstore chain that has grown fat by purchasing every available manufacturer, resulting in a hodgepodge of products that includes hi-fi equipment, bowling balls, and mint extract. Everson Steel, a relic from the days when the country built railroads, bridges, and tunnels, has diversified, too, but time is against it: The center of steel production is moving to China, where everything is cheaper. Everson's balance sheet is an act of accounting legerdemain in which the core business' losses are carefully concealed. Merkin, who has an unfailing nose for blood in the water, has a plan that is, to put it mildly, novel: Peterman will borrow the money to purchase Everson, using Everson -- which, of course, he doesn't own -- as collateral. This will necessitate the issuing of massive numbers of junk bonds -- "funny paper," as one disgusted character calls it -- which is where Merkin comes in.

Out of this maneuver, playwright Ayad Akhtar spins a tough, muscular melodrama about the finance jungle, directed at breakneck speed by Doug Hughes. Based loosely on the Michael Milken-Ivan Boesky scandal, it may initially strike audiences as a twice-told tale. (Such wheeling and dealing has been explored in films ranging from Wall Street to Margin Call to Equity. Junk also has certain similarities to Other People's Money, Jerry Sterner's 1989 Off Broadway blockbuster, not least for its willingness to instruct audiences in such basic terms as "poison pill.") But the playwright has plenty of fresh points to make, among them the class-war aspect of the deal: Merkin and Peterman are California Jews who, along with Raśl Rivera, Merkin's legal advisor, are pitted against steel magnate Thomas Everson, Jr., and his cohort, all of them members of the East Coast WASP ruling class. Well, not quite all of them: At one point, Leo Tresler, a member of the old guard who allies with Everson, complains to his investment banker that Merkin "gives good Jews like you a bad name." When this comment is met with a poker-faced response, he adds, "Don't be one of those overly sensitive types."

Junk is also a much richer piece because Akhtar has taken the long view, connecting the dots between 1985 and today. For all his rapacity, Merkin isn't necessarily wrong about Everson Steel; Everson, Jr., is loaded with good intentions -- he knows his hometown is entirely dependent on the company's continued success -- but he isn't a nimble thinker and, thanks to globalization, the world is changing in ways that he is ill-equipped to understand. He also treats his employees with a paternalism that grates. Merkin makes his case in a scalding speech to investors in which he castigates "the bizarre, self-serving belief that we Americans are somehow better than others," adding that "it's the blindness of a nation unwilling to question itself, unwilling to learn from the evidence of the marketplace." Junk looks back at an event that can fairly be termed the original sin of modern capitalism, leading to today's financial system, which is focused so intently on extracting cash from debt. And Akhtar, a specialist at constructing scenes that crackle, has excellent support from Hughes' direction and a blue-chip cast who flesh out the gallery of characters who circle the deal, each with his or her own angle to play.

As Merkin, Steven Pasquale makes a fine ringmaster in this circus of fiscal shenanigans. A master of spin, he schools Peterman in the art of the linguistic bob-and-weave, urging him to replace a statement about "imposing cuts" with one about his plan to "bring reform." Complaining about a recent business profile, Merkin takes issue with a well-worn anecdote, alleging that, in the fledgling days of his career, he wore a mining helmet during his morning commute, the better to read important papers on a darkened bus at five-thirty in the morning. "A mining helmet?" asks an associate in disbelief. "You didn't read it?" responds Merkin, ever so slightly wounded. And when circumstances demand that he explain his philosophy, he does so with the urgency of an oncoming freight train. This is the biggest, most ambitious stage role of Pasquale's career and he is more than up to its demands.

The rest of the cast pay dividends as well, including Matthew Rauch as the unapologetically greedy Peterman; Matthew Saldivar as the slick, slippery Rivera; Joey Slotnick as the inside trader who is both Merkin's secret weapon and the agent of his downfall; and Rick Holmes as Everson, struggling with father-approval issues and ill-equipped to compete in this savage arena. Also providing sharp, incisive turns are Ito Aghayere as a lawyer secretly playing both sides of the deal; Phillip James Brannon as a dogged assistant US attorney who tapes some very hot conversations; Teresa Avia Lim as Judy, the journalist, who gets a little too close to her story; Ethan Phillips as a milquetoast investor who can't escape Merkin's grasp; Charlie Semine as a US attorney who has no interest in Merkin's game until he sees how he can use it as a springboard to elected office; Michael Siberry as Leo, who rages that "We're not a country anymore...We're just a business;" Miriam Silverman as Amy, Merkin's wife, a stay-at-home mom with a fierce talent for crunching numbers; and Henry Stram as a genteel, gentlemanly investment banker who knows that he is going the way of the dodo.

To accommodate a drama that leaps between the East and West Coasts, John Lee Beatty has designed a shiny two-level black-box structure divided into multiple slots, each lined with LED tape; it is backed by ingenious projections, by 59 Productions, of, among other things, out-of-focus images of Los Angeles and New York scenes. (The blurring is an ingenious touch: We get the location and the images don't overwhelm the action.) The most dazzling projection moment poses some of the actors against an enormous image showing the day's stock quotes. Ben Stanton's lighting handles the complicated set and large-scale projections with ease, carving out one playing area after another. Mark Bennett's sound design combines his own incidental music with such effects as buzzers, intercoms, and factory-floor noises. Catherine Zuber's costumes play down the fashion excesses of the era for generally more fashionable looks.

Junk ends the way most stories of corrupt business practices seem to these days, with the battle against corruption won but the war pretty much lost. When last seen, Merkin, his wings apparently clipped, is figuring out the details of a plan that sounds dangerously like the subprime mortgage scheme that ground the world to a halt in 2008. There's always another deal to be made, and damn the dirty details. Cheers to Lincoln Center Theater for producing this rangy, mordant new play and giving it the first-class production it deserves. -- David Barbour


(13 November 2017)

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