“The Jewish experience has become fully integrated into the dominant American experience through many stages,” playwright Ayad Akhtar observed last week. Akhtar, 46, was reflecting in a Jewish Week interview on how his new play “Junk,” which debuts next month at Lincoln Center Theater, paints a portrait of Jewish bankers and traders in the 1980s who, despite their prodigious moneymaking abilities, were still unable to be embraced by the upper crust of American society. Along the way, they created highly unorthodox financial strategies, remaking capitalism in ways that transformed the very nature of American society.
Based loosely on the story of Michael Milken, the billionaire inventor who popularized high-risk junk bonds and suffered an extraordinary fall from grace when he was convicted of securities fraud, Akhtar’s play chronicles the paradoxical rise of debt as the highest form of value. In “Junk,” which is directed by Doug Hughes, Robert Merkin (Steven Pasquale, “The Bridges of Madison County” and TV’s “Rescue Me”) engineers a leveraged buyout of a major steel company run by Thomas Everson, Jr. (Rick Holmes), a WASP industrialist who is determined to hold on to the company at all costs.
Merkin’s partners, Israel “Izzy” Peterman (Matthew Rauch), a corporate raider, and Boris Pronsky (Joey Slotnick), an arbitrageur, help him raise the hundreds of millions of dollars that he needs to make the bid for the company. But Everson has an ally in Leo Tresler (Michael Siberry), a billionaire private equity magnate with deep-seated anti-Semitic attitudes who views Merkin as a “shyster” and “Shylock” who is undermining the American economy by substituting debt for assets. A Chinese-American journalist, Judy Chen (Teresa Avia Lim) is a stand-in for the playwright; she learns in the course of interviewing Merkin and Tresler that it is harder than she thinks to avoid being co-opted by money.
Akhtar, who grew up in a Pakistani-American family in Milwaukee, is a writer whose work explores the intersection of religion and finance. He is best known for his 2012 novel, “American Dervish,” about his religious awakening as a child, and for the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Disgraced,” about an assimilated Arab-American corporate lawyer in New York who finds himself tragically caught by the contradictions between his Muslim and American identities. “Disgraced,” which features complex conversations about religion and identity between Muslim and Jewish couples over dinner, ran on Broadway in 2012 and was subsequently staged by more than 20 regional theater companies throughout the country.
The playwright then went on to pen “The Invisible Hand,” a play about an American banker who, taken prisoner by terrorists in the Middle East, resorts to raising money for his own ransom by speculating on the international stock market. And then came “Junk,” which premiered last summer at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, where Charles McNulty, reviewing it for the L.A. Times, called it a “thrilling new play,” which is “part Shakespearean history play, part ‘The Big Short,’ [and which] tells the story of how debt overtook value as the path to enormous wealth.”
Akhtar’s interest in finance stems, he said, from when his father promised that he would pay his rent if he read the Wall Street Journal every day. In the heady 1990s, “Tina Brown had just taken over The New Yorker, we had the first tech bull market, people started talking about stock portfolios at cocktail parties, and the cultural cognoscenti were nipping at the heels of Wall Street.”
But even as “Junk” is, as Akhtar told me, a “setting for talking about how Americans’ relationship to money has transformed,” he pointed out that it is also very much a Jewish story. The “great paradox” of his work, Akhtar noted, is that he is a Muslim-American writer whose consciousness was formed by absorbing the oeuvre of Jewish novelists like Chaim Potok, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, and Jewish comedian Jerry Seinfeld.
“I was a Muslim kid from Milwaukee who learned about the American experience through Woody Allen’s films about Brooklyn,” he said. Little wonder that in an interview earlier this month with Michael Sokolove of The New York Times, Akhtar said that all of his closest friends in college were Jewish.
When he decided to write about the transformation of the American economy in the 1980s, Akhtar recalled, he was struck by the fact that it was Jewish bankers who popularized junk bonds and Jewish lawyers who jumpstarted the mergers and acquisitions craze. Akhtar called Milken an “extraordinary figure in American history whose surpassing and extraordinary vision for American finance sat untidily against the ways in which he was disrupting the business of making money.”
Milken’s core idea, according to Akhtar, was that money is “never anything but debt and that the value of money is thus proportional to our appetite for risk.” In the play, Merkin “pays the consequence because of his background and also because of his dark side; he’s a truth teller but no one is willing to hear it.” His adversary, Tresler is a “classic nativist, a WASP who believes that America was built by white hands.” But the overarching irony, Akhtar said, is that in some ways Tresler, whose name means “treasurer” in German, is the “moral center” of the play, because he warns against the downside of globalization, the ways in which it made the world into a “yard of scraps to be sold to the highest bidder.”
Asked if he was concerned, as a Muslim playwright, about characterizing Jewish bankers in a certain unflattering light, Akhtar said, “To me, Merkin is a genius — and all genius is inhabited by darker registers of the human experience. The question of the optics isn’t a fundamental dramatic one, really. Case in point: If he wasn’t Jewish, we wouldn’t even worry about him being cast in a negative light. We would simply see him as complex, or tragic, or conflicted. The whole discourse about immigrant identity is defined by this dilemma of not being able to be fully human without worry about the implications of how others might perceive one. This matter of representation is a kind of prison. …
“I identify with Merkin, with Peterman, they are scrappy guys trying to make their way. I couldn’t write them well, or fully if I had a judgment about them. It just wouldn’t work.”
Nowadays, identity politics, Akhtar reflected, is “all about money, the progressive transformation, at the hands of finance, of a public collective space to private individual ones. Agency, citizenship and ownership have been transferred to the private sector, and they have eroded our collective sense of who are as a nation and as a people.” Akhtar thus views “Junk” as highly resonant in the age of Donald Trump, because “when we celebrate individual triumph, we create tools and pathways for money to be the only dominant value in our lives.”
Does Akhtar worry that he will be accused of hypocrisy if “Junk” itself becomes a hot commodity? The playwright said that he had mulled over the prospect of doing a commercial run of the play in a Broadway house, but when it ended up at Lincoln Center, “it felt right” to him to have it produced by a nonprofit entity. “To make a killing with a play like this would feel a little odd,” he conceded. For as he wrote in the foreword to the print edition of the play, which will be released soon after the premiere in New York, “It’s easy to criticize capitalism and even easier to enjoy its benefits.”
“Junk” begins previews on Thursday, Oct. 5, at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St. It opens on Thursday, Nov. 2. Performances are Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7 p.m., Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, $77-$137, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit telecharge.com.