The Financial Bandits of the 1980s Ride Again in the New Play "Junk" (As in Junk Bonds)

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, Junk

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

I enjoy going to plays about money. That’s because I do not have any money.

A pretty good one is Junk, that just opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, in New York. It’s all about the outrageous stock and bond swindlers of the 1980s, the junk bond emperors. It is the story of the fictional Robert Merkin, a typical boy wonder stock trader who is already a billionaire when the play opens. He wants to take over the Everson Steel and United company. To do so he gets his friends, enamored by his wealth and certain he can do no wrong, to put up their money and other people’s money, along with junk bonds. He is a relentless shark and he smells the blood in the water of his victims. It is not just the hunter going after they prey for him, but a complicated game that he must not only win, but completely crush all of his opponents in the process.

Junk, by Ayad Akhtar is a solid exploration of the money wars of the 1980s, a Fourth of July of both capitalism and greed. At times the play sizzles and at times its characters sulk because, with their tens of millions, they just do not have enough money. The money that Merkin and his buddies take in—usually by illegal means - is fantastic. I can’t count that high. Calculators cannot either. It was billions. Tens of billions. Gazillions.

They are not hated for their greed and money, though; they are hailed. In several interviews, playwright Akhtar says that the financial wolves were greatly admired for their dollar thievery in the 1980s. They were the superstars and a world followed their adventures from stock market to stock market and bank to bank. He said in one interview that they were like Kings in history who ruled over everybody and everyone courted their favor. It was an interesting comparison. This play is about their illicit doings but also about the idea that the public admires rich people and really does not dare how they accumulated their money. There is a small investor in the play who seems to believe, along with his wife, that the slimy Merkin is a thief, but changes his mind when more money rolls in. Money was king. They raided hundreds of companies, stole billions. They lied to investors to get their money to prop up companies they purchased and then cut the companies apart and sold them off. Friends did not have money? Sell ‘junk’ bonds, that always resulted in huge profits or huge losses. The thousands of workers who were laid off as a result of their piracy and greed? Who cares, they told people. Collateral damage.

Akhtar, who won the Pulitzer prize in 2013, has written an entertaining play full of rich characterizations. He spares no one. He holds up the sleazy Merkin as a rogue, but he also holds up his partners, and even his wife, to ridicule. There is a noble girl reporter in the play who writes a book about the rogues that they do not like. She is bought out for $3 million. So much for journalistic ideals. Everybody had a price in the 1980s, the playwright says. Who can ever forget them – Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky, Bernie Madoff (he came later) and others -- and the money they stole?

Merkin and his co-conspirators are the villains, but there is a lovable, if a bit unbelievable, hero - Tom Everson Jr., the latest family scion to owner the Everson Steel company, that has provided jobs in Allegheny, Pennsylvania for generations. He refused to buckle under the pressure from Merkin. He has to find a way to get money of his own to prevent the raiders from taking his company. He is the good in this financial good vs. evil battle. He represents all of the smaller companies the raider traders went after, taking over many. Another hero is trader Leo Tresler, who battles Merkin and his Everson takeover and appears to be an angel sent from heaven. But…

The story is familiar. It seems that the playwright based his work loosely on the true story of financial wolf Michael Milken, who accumulated $600 million before being caught, and the movie story of the infamous Gordon Gekko, the star of the film Wall Street who uttered that memorable line about capitalism “Greed is good.” In Junk, Merkin’s signature line is “debt is an asset.”

Was anybody there to stop all of the dollar madness? Sure – the law. Here, it is a Rudy Giuliani type District Attorney, Giuseppe Addesso. He steps in and goes after Merkin (he has a motive, though). That crusade, the Everson story, and Merkin’s battle with those around him, make up the plot and sub plots of the play. Addesso must go after the ‘white whale’ who runs this international money cadre, ‘Captain Ahab,’ his right-hand man, and a collection of other crooks who, by comparison, would make Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves look like the Rotary Club.

The play is colorful, it is rich, and, oh boy, is it ever savage.

The one drawback to this otherwise fine play is the subject matter itself. Few people understand stocks and bonds, particularly ‘junk bonds’ and the ways in which they can be manipulated. I never did. I can handle buying a candy bar for $1.50, handing the cashier two one-dollar bills and getting fifty cents back in change. That’s my financial limit.

In a magazine published by Lincoln Center, The Lincoln Center Theater Review, there is an explanation of junk bonds that confused me even more. Too much of the play is about how junk bonds and the rogue traders who sold them. All of that detailed money talk confuses the average playgoer. The playwright should have dramatically reduced the time he spent on all of that financial wizardry and just concentrated on the personal stories of his oversized characters. There is just too much. The playwright needed to keep the dollar talk much simpler.

The play is nicely directed by Doug Hughes. He gets fine performances from Teresa Avia Lim as the reporter, Matthew Rauch as Israel Peterman, a Merkin aide, Rick Holmes as Everson and Michael Siberry as Leo Tesler. Steven Pasquale is impressive as the utterly loathsome Merkin, the man everybody loves to hate.

If you want to see how the dollars and cents underbelly of America functions, and don’t scare easily, see this play. Hang on to your wallet, though.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by Lincoln Center. Sets: John Lee Beatty, Costumes: Catherine Zuber, Lighting: Ben Stanton, Sound: Mark Bennett, Projections: 59 Productions. The play is directed by Doug Hughes. It runs through January 7.

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