You call this “Junk”? I call it solid storytelling.
At first glance, Ayad Akhtar’s new 1980s financial markets drama looks like the kind of thing we’ve seen before in countless films like “Wall Street,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Boiler Room,” “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “The Big Short” — not to mention the current television series “Billions.”
A hotshot trader (loosely based on “Junk Bond King” Michael Milken, here renamed Robert Merkin and played with steely self-assurance by Steven Pasquale) relentlessly pursues his latest hostile takeover through a mix of complex financial maneuvering (including the use of low-rated “junk bonds”) and backroom dealing (inevitably leading to police investigation and indictments).
But what separates Akhtar’s play is how it so skillfully integrates the speed, size (with a large ensemble cast to portray leading figures of the financial community plus its cronies, observers and victims) and detailed plot mechanics of a high-stakes thriller with light comedy and space for the characters to consider how high finance both deviates from and reflects traditional American values, including the compulsion to win at any cost, even as the ultimate prize becomes increasingly elusive.
Akhtar also suggests that the insularity of those at the top of the traditional corporate ladder may have led those who had been excluded (including minorities and children of immigrants) to look for unconventional, often ruthless strategies in order to win a seat at the table.
“Junk” marks a critical departure point for Akhtar, a Pakistani-American writer whose prior dramas involved Pakistani-Americans (the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Disgraced,” “The Who & The What”) and an American kidnapped by a Pakistani terrorist (“The Invisible Hand”).
Even while many of the characters are underdeveloped, the commentary on anti-Semitism feels tacked on and the industry lingo can throw off a layperson, “Junk” is engrossing from start to finish and Doug Hughes’ sleek, high-powered and fluid production (staged around a two-story set of empty squares and shining surfaces) never lags in momentum.