A markets expert and theater buff review the new financial thriller 'Junk'

Junk,” a Broadway play that opened on November 2 at Lincoln Center, is set in the high-flying world of Wall Street in the 1980s. It tells the tale of Robert Merkin, a corporate raider who uses unorthodox and illegal methods—junk bonds and insider trading, for example—to finance the takeover of a noble but struggling steel company.

They play touches on greed, corruption, sex and racial stereotypes, and examines what happens when a corporation’s purpose shifts from creating profit through excellence in goods and services—to solely the serving interests of shareholders.

The playwright, Ayad Akhtar, won the Pulitzer prize for drama in 2013 for his play “Disgraced.” His second play, “Junk,” stars Steven Pasquale as the Michael Milliken-like financier. It’s directed by Doug Hughes, whose many Broadway credits include “Frozen” and “Doubt,” both of which won Tony awards.

Because “Junk” is a theater piece about the financial sector, we at Yahoo Finance had a crazy idea: Two of us, with different backgrounds, would jointly review the play. Tech columnist David Pogue was a Broadway conductor and musical arranger in a former life; he reviews the play from a dramatic perspective. Nicole Sinclair, Yahoo Finance markets reporter, reviews it from a corporate and financial perspective.

Pogue noted it’s tough to care about the ugly characters but conceded the show got him to think and worry about the system. Sinclair appreciated the calculated dealings and the weighty impact of the white-collar crime. Here’s their two-pronged take on the new show:

David: Well, I don’t know, man. “Junk” is billed as a financial thriller. It’s about an unlikeable 1985 financier who worships at the altar of money, using junk bonds to take over and then dismantle a humble family-run company. It’s territory that’s been well covered in other plays, movies, and books—“Wall Street,” “Barbarians at the Gate,” “Serious Money,” and so on.

I’ll be straight with you: By the end of the first act, I kind of felt like I’d been watching a live performance of a long essay. “Junk” is very, very talky. Ayad Akhtar is a genius, a polymath, and he has a lot to say—but I wasn’t always sure that a Broadway play was the best place for him to say it.

JUNK, by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Doug Hughes, Lincoln Center Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson

Nicole: Interesting, because I was completely enthralled. There was no high-intensity action … no choreographed scenes of violence that would prompt gasps, but the bold soliloquies from the characters to the audience heightened the performances and drew us into their calculated dealings. Meanwhile, the threats and implications of the white-collar crime machinations—double-crossing advisors, quasi-illicit romances, marital spats—kept me on the edge of my seat. I wanted to know what would happen next. And the complexity of the characters made me think.

David: Is “complex” really the word, though? They felt puppeteered to me—and relentlessly unlikeable. They were all, and I mean all, corrupt a-holes. The main character is a greedy scumbag who lies to everyone, even to his wife. The “white knight” billionaire is anti-Semitic and preys on young women à la Harvey Weinstein. The attractive young reporter, for her part, accepts his advances because he’s rich. (She has a “powerful orgasm” just thinking about his money.) Even the otherwise sympathetic steel-company owner turns out to have cooked his books.

Meanwhile, I didn’t get a sense that most of them had any inner lives, families, relationships, or emotions, other than greed. Could you tell me anything about the childhoods, geographies or backstories of any of the characters? Did a single one have what we, in the biz, call a character arc? That is, did any of them actually develop, learn or grow over the course of the drama?

Nicole: Well, true—Bob Merkin (the junk bond trader at the center of the plot) has been overtaken completely by his pursuit for money simply for the sake of money. Money as religion. I do wish I could have seen other sides of him—or at the very least where this hunger came from and how it became the single driver in his life, more important than his wife or his child.

But the steel-company owner cares deeply about his workers’ jobs and also about making his father proud. And Tresler, the “white knight” billionaire, is passionate about his moral bounds when it comes to raising money, and he cares about the legacy of a blue-chip industrial.

I do wish that the journalist, Jackie, had at the very least shown signs of remorse or conflict. She tosses away her values without even blinking—twice, once when she sleeps with Tresler and again when she sells out regarding the book she’s been writing.

David: Oh man—I’m with you there. When Tresler started making unwanted sexual advances on her, I could hear the audience connecting. There was a buzz in the air: “Hey, this was just in the headlines!” 

Nicole: Yes, unfortunately, it seems almost everything relates back to Harvey Weinstein these days.

David: And then what does she do!? She gives in! She has sex with him! The guy’s like 65! There goes our last chance at rooting for a character. I really hope that Ayad Akhtar doesn’t actually view the world with such universal cynicism.

Nicole: Yeah. I had trouble at the end, because I lost hope. Ayad’s view does seem cynical: the system wins.

David: Remember at intermission? We went to get some water, and I was saying that the characters felt a little bloodless to me. And the woman in front of us whirled around and said, “Because they ARE bloodless! All of ‘em!” She was really offended by my remark. She was getting deep satisfaction from seeing the play beat up on these crooks. She wanted them to rot in hell.

Nicole: Akhtar, meanwhile, makes no attempt at offering a solution. True, the reporter and even Merkin don’t have as much individual will as we’d like them to. It becomes clear that maybe they’re all caught up in the overpowering system.

‘Money is personal’

David: Yeah. After the intermission, I began to accept that maybe this play isn’t intended to be about the characters. Maybe I was looking for meaning in the wrong place. I began to wonder if the real main character is ‘the System.’

And sure enough, in Act 2, all the strands laid out in Act 1 weave together in sinister and thrilling ways, culminating, I should say, in a final-scene twist that produced an audible gasp of recognition in the crowd. I won’t give away what it was about (“cough,” mortgage meltdown, “cough”).

Nicole: Yes, multiple gasps in Act 2. The audience recognized, in unison, key financial events that have become personal for everyone. After all, money is personal.

To me, one of the most intriguing scenes was the board-room meeting held as a conference call with characters on both levels of the stage. This is when the fates of the steel company, the corporate raider, the junk-bond trader, the trusting investor and the double-crossing adviser all come to a head.

But with a “system” that put billions of dollars at risk, the participants all have the shareholders in focus. It’s especially relevant today, with a tax proposal from the Trump administration that purports to be geared to the “working class,” but that many analysts show will largely benefit shareholders. (Only about 50% of Americans own any stocks.) As CEOs have more power and influence, should shareholders be the sole focus?

JUNK, by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Doug Hughes, Lincoln Center Theater Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson

Final takes

David: Did the play’s anti-Semitism bother you at all? Some of the characters make some pretty nasty remarks. I couldn’t figure out what Akhtar was after. Was he just trying to establish how unlikeable the characters were? Seems like he’d already covered that.

Nicole: Yeah, the anti-Semitic statements (including a slur!) were confusing to me. They felt thrown in without messaging, other than shock value.

David: Well, here’s what I’m dying to ask you: Clearly, my background in theater—expecting to care for the characters, for example—worked against my enjoyment of the play. Did your background in finance help your enjoyment?

Nicole: Yes, I would say it did. I recently sat down with two CEOs—David Taylor of Procter & Gamble and Carlos Rodriguez of ADP. Both are under attack from activist investors. The CEOs’ motives and the activists’ motives, to increase shareholder value, were well-reflected in the play.

David: No kidding. I don’t think Akhtar thinks much of this business of “business exists to enrich the shareholders.”

The steel-company CEO, Everson, is constantly pushing back on his advisers on this point: “Shareholders?” he says. “Do you know them? Because I don’t. I don’t know the person who bought stock two days ago—or two weeks ago—or two years ago. Just because you own a piece of paper does not give you the authority to know what’s best for this company. We’re not just some number on the exchange that makes people happy when it ticks up and when it doesn’t, makes them f***k with our lives.”

Nicole: Meanwhile, politics are dominating the headlines, and it always comes back to money, whether it’s health care, tax reform or immigration.

David: We should point out one big point we agreed on wholeheartedly: The “Junk” production itself was spectacular. The cast is top-notch; the direction kept the very talky dialogue brisk; and the set was phenomenal. It looks like a glittery version of a jailhouse: Ten cells facing you, five stacked on five. That cellblock look kind of adds its own commentary on the action, if you think about it.

(Did you notice that the upper level was used almost exclusively for phone calls? I can picture director Doug Hughes reading the script for the first time and smacking his forehead… “Oh my God… a third of this play is people talking on the phone!The set really helped with that.)

Nicole: Yes! You would notice that, as the tech guy! It was all about the phone line in the end—that’s how the bad guys got caught.

Clearly, Akhtar is a thinker and an intellectual. And while he may not end his play with a clear statement—and certainly not a solution—he clearly depicts what drives decisions today… and a new “value” system that may not reflect our best sides. If, as the characters say, “A man is what he has,” and “debt is an asset,” many questions remain.

David: So here’s my final take on “Junk:” It’s impeccably produced, deeply engrossing, and genuinely thrilling, at least in Act 2. Don’t expect to be moved—don’t expect to care about these ugly characters—but do expect to be prodded into thinking, worrying, and talking for hour with your viewing companions.

Nicole: Or even a fellow spectator at intermission!

David: And prompting discussion, I’m guessing, was the playwright’s aim all along.

Nicole: As a financial reporter, I particularly enjoyed it, but the play’s dive into the darker aspects of the financial world clearly speaks to a broader audience. It plays on universal emotions and drivers.

Even for you, David: I didn’t catch you looking at your brand-new iPhone X once.

David Pogue is tech columnist for Yahoo Finance. Nicole Sinclair is markets correspondent at Yahoo Finance