- Junk by Ayad Akhtar
Since the rise of markets, theatre has ventured to capture the drama of finance. Thomas Shadwell’s The Volunteers, or the Stock-Jobbers (1693) chronicles the devious deals in London’s Exchange Alley; Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money (1987) satirizes the traders of the Thatcher era; and Lucy Prebble’s Enron (2009) takes on the eponymous scandal. Junk (2016) is a recent attempt by Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Ayad Akhtar to convey the history and [End Page 557] myth of finance. Akhtar and director Doug Hughes were not interested in a financial melodrama that would vilify the high-rollers of the free market and denounce neoliberal capitalism. Instead of a self-righteous critique, Junk at the Lincoln Center Theater was a timely, fast-paced, and sleek financial thriller that sought to show how capital transforms every institution, including the arts. Resisting the didactic pitfalls of the drama of ideas, this production explored finance as a seductive mythology affecting every fiber of American society. The sheer spectacle of Junk was meant to sweep the audience off its feet in the same way that financial speculation has enticed crowds with promises of wealth since the times of the Tulip mania and the Southern Sea Bubble.
With references to Shakespeare and Melville, Junk is in part a history play, “a story of kings—or what passes for kings these days.” The story follows the rise and fall of Robert Merkin (played with impish charm by Steven Pasquale), a modern-day Robin Hood, who makes “fools out of the people in charge.” He finances big corporate takeovers with “junk bonds,” otherwise known as high-yield bonds, which have a higher risk of default, but that can also have higher returns. Although inspired by the real-life story of Michael Milken, who pleaded guilty to securities fraud in an insider-trading investigation in 1990, Junk is not only a chronicle of a bygone era. With allusions to the Bible, Akhtar’s economic thriller also exposes the mythic component of finance that has all the characters in thrall—not only financiers, but also politicians and artists. The bold set and lighting designs by John Lee Beatty and Ben Stanton channeled the production’s interest in both history and myth: on the one hand, the neon-lit cubicles and large-than-life projections of stock numbers created by Beatty conveyed the bigness and boldness of the 1980s; on the other, Stanton’s illuminated backdrops, reminiscent of the light works of US artist James Turrell, conjured up a sense of the sublime.
Underneath its seductive veneer, Junk gave its audience a lesson in economic language and thought. Merkin emphasizes at several points that financiers use jargon and obfuscation to fool the layman. Junk pays attention to the power of financial language in a twofold manner: by showing its poetic magnitude, and by laying bare its rhetorical tricks. The acting ensemble rose to the challenge of delivering obscure finance-speak as if it were Shakespearian poetry. The actors also slowed down their speech when explaining economic concepts: why the word money, for example, is better than capital, and how words like change, transform, and vision can sway people. Eschewing Shavian didacticism, Akhtar delivers his lesson by cleverly framing the story as the book project of alluring and ambitious writer Judy Chen. When Chen grills Merkin about his ethics and tactics, he delivers a mini-lecture to both her and the audience on the credit theory of money. In short, debt can be traded as an asset if money is defined as a promise to pay.
Akhtar spent his youth reading the Wall Street Journal, and his grasp of economics was already evident in his earlier plays Disgraced (2012) and The Invisible Hand (2015). With the serious exploration of capitalist culture in Junk, he reveals himself to be an heir to Ibsen. In this production, when Pasquale’s Merkin, lit by a magnificent sunset, surveyed the landscape from his skyscraper and speculated how much it would cost to buy the entire City of...