Robert Merkin (Steven Pasquale) stands before us, the audience as surrogate shareholders, in evangelical mode: "What is wrong in America, and there is definitely something wrong" — he pauses for the big laugh he knows is coming (this is New York City, after all) — and continues, "it has nothing to do with corporate wealth." More laughter. And that's the point of Ayad Akhtar's new play, Junk. As in bonds.
Merkin's name seems to be an obvious allusion to Michael Milkin, the "Junk Bond King," as he was known before he went to prison for insider trading in the 1980s. But a merkin is also a pubic wig, worn by men and women to cover the unsightly effects of syphilis. Make of that what you will.
The disease in question here isn't syphilis but rather rampant greed, an epidemic on The Street, when people measure personal wealth in billions. Having recently binge-watched Billions, a terrific Showtime series which in any decent society would be a parody but isn't, I was struck by its similarities to Akhtar's fast-talking, big-cast play at Lincoln Center. I was also struck by the similarity between Junk and Akhtar's earlier play, The Invisible Hand, in which the playwright's understanding of the stock market was put to far more interesting use, as we watch a man save his life through teaching his terrorist captor how to manipulate the market and "earn" his own ransom.
Despite compelling performances, your level of interest in Junk may depend on how much you care about your portfolio, and how much you understand the jargon of wheeling and dealing at the highest financial levels. As a portrait of the collapse of America's moral center, when a small number of people set out to change the world using the Dow as both carrot and stick, this play seems comprehensive.
The problem is that there is not a single likable character.
Everyone, except the owner (Rick Holmes) at Everson Steel, a three-generations family-owned factory in Allegheny Pennsylvania, is ruthless, unscrupulous, and money-driven. Part of the motivation is generational revenge: these high-stakes players are mostly Jews, reacting to the anti-Semitism of the old-boy network and their snide "Saturday" jokes. There are a couple of outliers within the outlier set: Raul (Matthew Saldivar) and Jackie (Ito Aghayere), who turns out to be a spy. There is no surprise as we learn that sex is traded like a blue-chip commodity.
Merkin has, as part of his gargantuan fortune, a blonde wife (Miriam Silverman) with an MBA — and anyone who knows Akhtar's earlier play, Disgraced, knows about the dangers of blonde wives. All the men, old boy and new boy, look alike: similar charcoal gray suits, black shoes, inconspicuous ties that must cost a bundle.
Doug Hughes directs with urgent speed and precision on a nifty John Lee Beatty set. And since this all takes place in the past, with obvious allusions to recent history, we know how it's going to turn out. Even the surprise at the end invites rueful head-shaking rather than gasps. Hindsight. Nothing like it.
Vivian Beaumont Theatre in Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th Street, New York.