It is said that we all have a shadowy side, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, let alone act on it.
But Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar’s “Junk’ satisfies that shadier side of the psyche without any real action needed. The play is a throwback to some of the financial scandals of previous decades, letting the audience indulge in a tale of greed and evil, with a healthy dose of humor.
The two-hour play, which runs without intermission, is loosely based on the high-yield bond scandal of the 1980s, where financier Michael Robert Milken made millions on bad debt, or “junk bonds,” but eventually landed in jail.
“I am so thrilled that ‘Junk’ will be playing at Arena, in the nation’s capital—where we have all witnessed the result of money’s increasing predominance in our national, political life,” Ayad said. “I do believe the central story of our time is not identity, but money. And it seems to me the central thread of that American tale takes us right through the events of the mid-’80s, and the rise of debt as a tool for empowerment, both individual and corporate.”
The tale is a peek into the life of fictional financier Robert Merkin (Thomas Keegan), a Jewish trader who found a formula to make billions off the debt of companies, staging several hostile takeovers of struggling companies once he drove their debt up to untenable levels.
The narrator is Judy Chen (Nancy Sun), a shrewd Asian-American journalist who has embarked on writing a book about the fast-paced, high-stakes financial world when she gets wind of Merkin’s schemes and becomes intrigued.
In a rapidly changing, brightly lit set made of moveable tables and chairs, the stark design by Misha Kachman helps to keep the attention on the plot, with all of its twists and turns swiftly unfolding in the dialogue between Merkin, his partners-in-crime Israel Peterman (Jonathan David Martin), the businessman who snatches up the companies at low prices, Boris Pronsky (Elan Zafir), his frontman, and even his wife Amy (Shanara Gabrielle), who all have skin in the game.
When Merkin homes in on a failing family business, all facets go into action to corner the prey, Thomas Everson Jr. (Edward Gero), whose family-owned business ran into a cash flow crisis. With an originally well-intentioned investor courted by Merkin, Leo Tressler (David Andrew Macdonald), the die is cast, resulting in the loss of Everson’s steel mill, along with other offshoot companies created by his father.
In this intricate and intriguing take on American society and what drives it, director Jackie Maxwell takes audiences on a roller-coaster ride in which no one comes out unscathed and all the characters ultimately cave for the love of money.
That is, except for Kevin Walsh (played by homegrown actor JaBen Early), the intrepid FBI agent who sets up the players to reveal their schemes while he records their phone conversations to lead to a culminating indictment of Merkin and his associates. Working with an elected official, Giuseppe Addesso (Nicholas Baroudi), Walsh notes he is just doing his job as his cohort, Addesso, accepts payola in order to secure his upcoming election.
“This is not meant to be a historical tale, not a bio-drama,” said Macdonald, whose character is the only other that addresses any degree of moral culpability. “It’s about the time. It is an origin myth for the state of greed in America and the tentacles it has around the world. And if he could get a good laugh out of it, then yeah!”
“Junk” plays at the Fichlander Stage of Arena Stage through May 5. For showtimes and ticket prices, go to arenastage.org.