By Ron Cohen
have thought that junk bonds, those infamous high-interest, high-risk
investment vehicles that were all the rage in the 1980s, could still be so
pertinent and entertaining?
that’s what Ayad Akhtar accomplishes handily in his financial thriller, aptly
titled Junk and being given a rousing Lincoln Center Theater
production. It’s a monumental offering, with a company of 23 actors portraying
nearly 30 characters, charged up to high voltage performances under the
sizzling pace of director Doug Hughes.
romps through a maze of Wall Street machinations as a brash financial firm and
the small-time conglomerate it is backing aim to take over a long established but
failing American steel company. The purchase money will come from the sale of
bonds, the debt then charged to the faltering company, which will then have
sell off its assets, making oodles of money for the investors and lots of
unemployment for the company’s workers. Or something like that.
audiences who have already absorbed the complexities of such films and plays as
The Big Short, Wall Street and Other People’s Money and
such books as Liar’s Poker, Junk may feel like it’s dredging up
overly familiar ground.
Akhtar -- whose intimate drama Disgraced, dealing with Muslim-American
identity, won a 2013 Pulitzer Prize -- takes on this much broader canvas and
much different subject matter with such incisiveness and brisk illumination of
situation, it should hold you totally engaged. His leading characters are
quickly sketched to emerge as arresting individuals, even the deplorables, and
their personas are further sharpened in an array of flawless performances.
provocateur in this maelstrom of money and power – with reverberations that may
well remind you of 2017 -- is the junk bond trader Robert Merkin, a man whose
ability to reap wealth out of debt, has – with the help of a fawning financial
press – turned into a messiah of the marketplace. Stephen Pasquale’s rich
portrayal of the man endows him with a bounty of both intensity and charisma,
and even a touch of soul.
old devil greed is certainly a factor in his psyche, other forces drive him as
well. There’s a taste for revenge, as he aims to outdo the old, established
“white shoe“ banking firms that refused to hire his numbers-wizard of a father
because he was Jewish. There’s the drive to be appreciated by his wife, whose
smarts even outpace his. She’s radiates bone-deep intelligence in Miriam
Silverman’s deft portrayal.
also seems motivated by his genuine belief in a global economic society, which
means buying steel from Asia if it’s better and cheaper than American steel.
It’s a shocker of a message that puts him on magazine covers.
Matthew Rauch and Steven Pasquale
finally there’s the rogue impulse to move outside the law, even without his
wife’s knowledge, as he trades insider tips on the progress of the takeover
scheme for a percentage of the trading profit to a group of sleazy stock and
bond traders. Joey Slotnick gives the head of this group just the proper amount
of sleaziness, while Matthew Rauch nicely mixes sleaze with charm as the head
of the conglomerate making the hostile bid.
mix of elements – self-righteousness, self-doubt and genuine concern for his
employees who may well lose their jobs – are expertly melded in Rick Holmes’
assaying of the head of the steel company.
Avia Lim and Michael Siberry
A host of
other compelling performances keep the action galloping along. Among them,
Michael Siberry flamboyantly inhabits a blustery old-time financier, who for a
time considers helping the steel company fend off the takeover bid. He also
manages to conduct an affair with a curvesome financial reporter, played with
sexy ferocity by Teresa Avia Lim.
are assorted financial and legal advisors, each of them given sharply shaded
identities by Henry Stram, Ito Aghayere and Matthew Saldivar. And even more
kudos are due Charlie Semine as a ‘’crusading” district attorney with an eye on
Gracie Mansion, Phillip James Brannon as his relentless investigator and Ethan
Phillips as a conflicted investor worried about the investments he’s making
with his wife’s money.
add up to quite a show, given more zest by John Lee Beatty’s multilevel,
knockout of a set, divided into various sections outlined in lights and housing
an array of pitch-perfect vignettes, from elegant restaurants to classy offices
and luxurious domiciles. You can smell the money, and you can hear the anxiety
getting it causes in Mark Bennett’s throbbing original music and sound design,
while Catherine Zuber’s excellent costumes will help you keep the characters
you’ve heard this junk bond-hostile takeover-insider trading story before.
Akhtar’s take on it makes it quite worth the retelling.
Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont
150 West 65th Street
866 302 0995
Playing until January 7