“This is the story of how kings are made,” a jaded journalist proclaims at the start of Junk, the latest play from Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar. “Or what passes for kings these days.”
Financiers who lived through the dizzy 1980s will remember the era of Wall Street royalty, when a new guard of dealmakers began to see debt differently, as a thing of value. As investors chased yield, they embraced risk with zeal—and the most voracious among them were rewarded with mountains of cash. In Akhtar’s cautionary study of the period, in previews at New York’s Lincoln Center Theater, an older financier can’t get his head around the core of what came to be called “creative financing.” “Debt is not an asset,” he declares. “Debt is debt!”
We meet Akhtar’s protagonist, Robert “Bob” Merkin (Steven Pasquale), after his coronation. The cover of Time magazine labels him “America’s alchemist,” a man who forges multimillion-dollar deals out of debt and equity. He’s driven by avarice but also titillated by risk, insulated by a sense of invincibility. Merkin sees himself as a modern-day J.P. Morgan. “We’re going to change history,” he confides to a colleague. “We’re going to change the world.”
We have certainly learned the lessons that came with these changes, more than once now. But the subject matter seems especially relevant today, as we reckon with the consequences of this kind of dealmaking. Akhtar himself was a student of the junk bond boom. When he moved to New York in 1995, his dad offered to pay his rent if he agreed to read the Wall Street Journal every day. “I started to observe how all this stuff was transforming our lives,” Akhtar says after a recent performance. “Or at least I believed it was.”
In Junk, Merkin’s unsuspecting takeover target is Everson Steel in Allegheny, Pa., thousands of miles and a world away from West Los Angeles, where Merkin is based. Here, the conflict crystallizes. Thomas Everson Jr. (Rick Holmes), presiding over a small empire of mills and smelters, feels responsible for his thousands of employees. When an outside investor amasses a sizable position in Everson Steel, he sees barbarians at the gate. The company has been struggling, but Everson hasn’t been looking for a lifeline.
Performing sorcery depends on secrecy and subterfuge. The artist knows that if a viewer fully understands what happens behind the scenes, magic becomes, well, less magical. Financial wizardry has some of the same mystique, which makes the playwright’s job difficult: How do you make a complex financial transaction comprehensible—and, better still, compelling—to theatergoers?
“It is incumbent on me, as a writer, to provide enough information for the audience, through action and context and dialogue, to understand at least what the basic concept is,” Akhtar says. The play isn’t overly didactic, though. You don’t have to understand all the jargon to grasp the implications of what happens. That said, viewers familiar with the ways of Wall Street will be grateful to Akhtar for doing his due diligence. Two of his closest friends are in finance, and one of them edited an early draft.
“Finding a way to write about business, where the human stakes do have consequence, is really the challenge,” Akhtar says. “Getting a deal done is about getting a deal done, but it is not always about whether someone is going to live or die.”
It helps that so much in the show—and the plight of Everson and his employees—feels familiar and real. The financiers, investors, reporters, and lawyers in Junk are Akhtar’s own creations, but he acknowledges that Bob Merkin’s resemblance to Michael Milken extends beyond their near-rhymed surnames. And Akhtar suspects there will be ticket holders who are acquaintances of some of the men who inspired his characters. But, he cautions, “there isn’t a consistent line to be drawn” between Merkin and Milken. His advice? See Merkin as a metaphor.
Junk focuses on a pivotal moment in American history, when the country’s value system started to shift, along with the definition of “success.” Three decades later, it’s worth reflecting on what changed and what’s happened. At one point, Merkin and his colleagues raise the specter of “Dow 20,000.” I heard laughter in the audience as the characters debated its inevitability. The Dow Jones industrial average crossed that threshold earlier this year, and in October, the index set a new high.