Milken, Milken, Wherefore Art Thou? In “Junk” on Broadway, Methinks

The Wall Street atmosphere as conjured for Ayad Akhtar's "Junk."

There’s an old saying that everything in life depends on timing and lighting. It so happens that Ben Stanton’s lighting is perfectly fine on John Lee Beatty’s stripped-down, two-level set for Ayad Akhtar’s play Junk, currently running on Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre.

The timing of the play is the problem. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s consideration of 1980s junk-bond king Michael Milken‘s manipulations of the market — here he’s identified as Robert Merkin (Stephen Pasquale) — comes rather late in the day.

Yes, Akhtar is ruminating on a topic very much in the headlines: the power of money and its myriad abuses. When Junk premiered in L.A. last year, it was titled Junk: The Golden Age of Debt. Maybe that’s obvious now.

In 2017, however, raising uh-oh-money as a topic works as a detriment more than as a benefit. The play really calls for something more pertinent to today’s headlines, not to 24- and 36-point banners of some 30 years ago.

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Indeed, those of us who shudder at financial derring-don’t in contemporary times know of many dramas that have trod this ground. We know Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money, Jerry Sterner’s Other People’s Money, Lucy Prebble’s Enron, David Hare’s The Power of Yes, the Oscar-winning movies Wall Street and The Big Short and the Oscar-nominated The Wolf of Wall Street.

“When did money become the only thing?” someone asks in Junk. The inquiry is still timely, but what’s needed, urgently, is a timely play to accompany it. Undoubtedly, Akhtar aims for his wrangle with junk bonds (a term not heard much today, if at all) as a metaphor for any stripe of shady financial dealings, but that carries neither enough weight nor enough suspense to sustain this two-act piece.

Anyway, in Akhtar’s take on Milken’s grimy tale, the year is 1985 and cold-blooded Merkin deals in debt as he attempts to purchase Everson Steel and United in Allegheny, PA. He’s determined to wrest the company out from its third-generation owner and CEO, Thomas Everson, Jr. (Rick Holmes).

To abet his bid, Merkin arrays his confederates: corporate raider Israel Peterman (Matthew Rauch), lawyer Raul Rivera (Matthew Saldivar), and arbitrageur Boris Pronsky (Joey Slotnick). Like Merkin/Milken, Pronsky’s name echoes another notorious (and convicted) figure of the ’80s: arbitrageur Ivan Boesky. It was Boesky who inspired the character of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street and who, apparently, really did say “Greed is good.”

Everson, for his part, has his allies, too: private equity man Leo Tresler (Michael Siberry), advising investment banker Maximilien Cizik (Henry Stram) and lawyer Jacqueline Blount (Ito Aghayere).

Merkin is additionally bolstered by his wife, Amy (Miriam Silverman), whose aggressive championing and frequent bedroom bickering makes them look like direct descendants of the Macbeths. Doug Hughes’ direction, in fact, resembles not a few of the Shakespeare tragedies and histories that are mounted these days in modern dress. (Catherine Zuber supplied the predictably dull suits and ties for the men.)

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For two acts, the chillingly soulless Merkin conspires to raise what’s needed to take over Everson Steel, while Everson, loyal to his family’s legacy, fights to keep it. In this, he’s admirably adamant: there’s no shortage of privileged third-generation members of family businesses who couldn’t care less.

Also in Akhtar’s Junk pile is a RICO investigation headed by Kevin Doyle (Phillip James Brannon). As the competing forces do battle, Doyle pursues suspicions that chicanery — including insider trading, naturally — is underfoot. Slowly, he ensnares the players and offers them deals. (Ticket buyers may spot similarities between Junk and indictments against certain former participants in a recent presidential campaign.)

Throughout his script, Akhtar is extremely precise about how machinations proceed on both sides of the battle; he appears to understand the thin line between what is legal and what isn’t. Yet if particulars are expertly engineered, the ending feels familiar and therefore fails to sufficiently involve us.

There is, though, one Junk item that strongly resonates with current events.

Part of the drama’s ignominious tale is also revealed by investigative reporter Judy Chen (Teresa Avia Lim), who interviews Tresler. Not only does Tresler hit on Chen, she responds to it positively, and they begin an affair that enhances her…reporting. In other words, their sexual contact is consensual and, as Akhtar implies, is frequent. For those caught up in the Harvey-Weinstein-James-Toback-Kevin-Spacey-Jeremy-Piven-Dustin-Hoffman scandal and all of its fast-metastasizing parts, it’s an inconvenient plot point — confirmation that when men face such charges, they often argue that the sex was consensual. In dynamic of Junk, it would appear that they have a valid argument.

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Junk’s junkiness isn’t confined to the script but underlined by production elements. Beatty’s set is sleek, all right, but sleek in the way that so many money-themed plays have been — with lots of streamlined metal and shiny flooring defining the playing areas.

Beatty divides the space into five sections echoed on the upper level. White lines separate the areas, where Hughes often establishes characters and then, in his staging, keeps them from crossing into another character’s territory. Visually, what is the metaphor here? Is he attempting to indicate, for these masters of the universe, their hegemony as well as their confinement? Perhaps. It’s never quite clear.

As Junk begins, Wall Street numbers in small typeface rapidly climb upstage panels. 59 Projections provide the images but can’t be held responsible for the instantly conjured memories of other plays that have announced the Wall Street milieu in the same clichéd manner.

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Hughes has cast Junk well. There’s no quarreling with Pasquale as the conniving Merkin or Holmes as his sincere, desperate counterpart. The entire troupe is populated by some of our most effective character actors — Siberry, Stram, Rauch, Saldivar, foremost among them. Lim, Blount, Silverman, too, are persuasive. If any of the above were seen passing through the 1 Liberty Plaza doors downtown, no one would point at them as not belonging.

Akhtar has written Junk as a morality play at a time when morality, like the US Constitution, is under serious assault. He makes his points on that score but might have racked up even more points with something torn more definitively from 2017 headlines, not the yellowing ones from 1985.