A junk bond is a high-yield, high-risk maturity in the financial markets, and a greedy group of investors bought them and enjoyed the 10-12 percent interest that was sent out semi-annually, in most cases. Ayad Akhtar’s play, Junk, now playing at Lincoln Center in New York City, is a documentary that is informative and technically quite brilliant, sacrificing subtlety and nuance in its dozens of characterizations. It centers on a fictitious financier, Robert Merkin, who underwrites the bonds that Israel Peterman’s company, Saratoga McDaniels, issues. The purpose is a hostile takeover of Everson Steel and United, the sort that flourished during this unattractive period of American financial history. These bonds are issued by government, city or public company that is looking for cash with which to pay for infrastructure improvements, or to fund debt. A company might issue bonds to help itself to grow or to take over another company. None of it is illegal; but it is far more speculative than other forms of investment, because if the borrower cannot pay the interest it promised, the bonds are likely to default and end up worthless.
In the case created by playwright Akhtar, in order to include the dozens of participants, designer John Lee Beatty has created a huge grid as backing to the play’s activity. When its 18 squares are not functioning to light one, two, or more characters, they all disappear, and hundreds of numbers are flashed, to remind us of the enormous volume of activity in the buying and selling of these cash cow investments. Director Doug Hughes, with the help of these well lit squares, can now neatly control the tiniest of details as the play pits ideas at Messrs. Merkin and Peterman. Mostly what we get are facts, brief and vivid confrontations concerning actions that must be taken to deliver the numbers required to make these leaders and their minions immensely wealthy. Of course it’s a bubble that bursts, and when it does, it takes thousands of investors down with them.
Steven Pasquale is crisp and clear as Merkin, bellowing through most of the play. He rarely tones down to some form of intimacy when facing a friend or his wife Amy. He manages to calm one of the investors who has put his wife’s fortune into the bonds, only to find himself panicked at the prospect of losing all. He is Murray Lefkowitz, and Ethan Phillips’ ability to project that terror is instant and visceral. Merkin responds to his pleas for help in an entirely unchararacteristic way, and it’s one of the rare moments in this bombastic play that affects us emotionally. For the rest, it’s cold steel exposure to the amoral behavior of so many of the business men and women who populate it.
More and more large exposés in play form have emerged in recent years. Enron and the currently running Ink in London are examples of the electronically designed sets that are home to them. In another vein entirely London sent us The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, again backed by an electronic setting, but the result there was to peel away the thoughts and feelings of an autistic boy, reacting to the cold world in which we are all presently stuck. Using unusually large casts allows the writers to bring many characters to life, very briefly, which does inform us, but it robs us of any emotional connection. We are informed, but I for one feel I’ve been more to a lecture than to a play. However, I’m beginning to adjust and accept what I note to be a new trend. Good use of it is made in the recent reinvention of M Butterfly, which is visually trendy, but because it deals primarily with just the two central characters, we do react emotionally to their story.
Junk is set in 1985 in New York, Los Angeles, and Allegheny Pa. I note that this is one year after George Orwell’s imagined version of 1984. In real life however, and in Junk, there is no Big Brother either condoning or condemning the methods of the Robert Merkins. What the play successfully attempts to show us is the importance of money and how it affects us all, 30 years ago, and right now. It’s not a pretty picture, and this play that reflects its author’s convictions about that, is a stimulating provocateur that gives us much food for thought.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.