By Ayad Akhtar
Read by Michael Crouch
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Set in 1985, Junk tells the story of Robert Merkin, resident genius of the upstart investment firm Sacker Lowell. Hailed as “America’s Alchemist,” his proclamation that “debt is an asset” has propelled him to a dizzying level of success. By orchestrating the takeover of a massive steel manufacturer, Merkin intends to do the “deal of the decade,” the one that will rewrite all the rules. Working on his broadest canvas to date, Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar chronicles the lives of men and women engaged in financial civil war: insatiable investors, threatened workers, killer lawyers, skeptical journalists, and ambitious federal prosecutors. Although it’s set 40 years in the past, this is a play about the world we live in right now; a world in which money became the only thing of real value.
THE POETICS OF MONEY
History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
—Often attributed to Mark Twain
Whoever said it, said it well, but perhaps not forcefully enough. For to speak of history’s rhyming schemes is already to imply—without insisting—that our tribes, our nations, their defining quandaries and quiddities, are substantially the result of poetic concoction. Stories, really. For history’s animating spirits are never driven by mere actualities; but rather shaped by locution, directed by metaphor, nourished by meaning. Poetic compression and narrative contest (and the resulting triumphs or defeats)—these are history’s architectural fundaments. These are what we see as the ever-molting, ever-recurring patterns recognizable in history’s rhymes, whether eye or end, rich or slant.
To some, Shakespeare virtually forged Englishness in the crucible of his nine Elizabethan English-history plays. But he did so with little fidelity to the merely actual. For whatever else Henry V is—a critique of canny power; a celebration of compassionate kingship; a demonstration of England’s innate superiority over its French neighbor—it is certainly not anything like what truly happened. But we don’t care. For we recall a diplomatic insult in a crate of tennis balls, a blood-warming paean to noble death on St. Crispin’s day, a climactic wooing that seduces even the most cynical of us into believing that peace can always be made with our enemy. By means of elision and elaboration, personification, emotional investment in point of view, the play brings us to the recognition that history is made of us, that we can see and know it because we can see and know ourselves in it.
Those familiar with the financial history of the 1980s will seek and find correspondences in Junk with the merely actual events of that era. Indeed, one need not have gone to business school to have at least a cursory familiarity with the Revlon and RJR-Nabisco deals, the techniques of the rising titans who engineered them, and the resulting cautionary tales that landed more than a few of that vanguard generation in prison. To those looking, the correspondences will abound, but they are not primary.
They are, in fact, misleading.
At the center of this story is Robert Merkin, a remarkable man who raises money by selling debt. His means, his ends—creative, disruptive, profoundly individualist—are having an outsized, even unprecedented effect on American life. But in assessing Merkin, in taking stock of his optimizing, morally driven commitment to capitalism, we could make the mistake of believing that Merkin’s historical corollaries might point the way to the play’s secret meaning. Not so. For Merkin has been fashioned from the jetsam of the past to speak to us of who we are now. What our near-religious commitment to capital growth has brought us to, now. What world we have brought into being under this regime of finance. Now.
It is easy to criticize capitalism, and even easier to enjoy its benefits. And neither drama nor the world at large needs another screed decrying the predations of greed. What I did believe—and my partner in this process, Doug Hughes, believed as well—was that emotional understanding and dramatic engagement (the stuff of poetry, if you will) must come before all judgment. So we strove to make of this the best tale we could, one with the breadth of our shared ambition to convey not only contemporary finance’s mythic reach, but also its historical roots. For indeed, no aspect of our collective life today is untouched by the poetics of money forged in the crucible of that storied era.
Peterborough, New Hampshire
Junk had its world premiere on August 5, 2016, at La Jolla Playhouse, California (Christopher Ashley, artistic director; Michael S. Rosenberg, managing director). It was directed by Doug Hughes; the set design was by John Lee Beatty; the costume design was by William Mellette; the lighting design was by Ben Stanton; the sound design was by Mark Bennett; and the stage manager was Charles Means. The cast was as follows:
Judy Chen ……………………………………………………. Jennifer Ikeda
Robert Merkin …………………………………………………. Josh Cooke
Raúl Rivera ………………………………………………. Armando Riesco
Murray Lefkowitz / Chen’s Lawyer …………………… Jason Kravits
Israel Peterman…………………………………………… Matthew Rauch
Charlene Stewart…………………………………………… Zora Howard
Thomas Everson…………………………………………….. Linus Roache
Maximilien Cizik ……………………………………………. Henry Stram
Jacqueline Blount …………………………….. Zakiya Iman Markland
Leo Tresler ……………………………………………………. David Rasche
Boris Pronsky ………………………………………………….. Jeff Marlow
Mark O’Hare / Merkin’s Lawyer / Union Worker ….. Sean McIntyre
Devon Atkins / Waiter …………………………………. Hunter Spangler
Amy Merkin …………………………………………………. Annika Boras
Giuseppi Addesso…………………………………….. Benjamin Burdick
Kevin Walsh…………………………………………………. Keith Wallace
Corrigan Wiley / Union Rep / Curt……………………… Tony Carlin
We would rather be ruined than changed…
—W. H. Auden
ROBERT MERKIN—Early 40s. “Bob.” Junk Bond Trader at Sacker-Lowell, an investment bank. Merkin is an unusual combination of charismatic leader and behind-the-desk functionary. On the strength of unparalleled focus and remarkable intellectual gifts, he has emerged as the financier of the age.
RAÚL RIVERA—Mid-30s. Lawyer for Sacker-Lowell. Of Cuban extraction. Wry, playful, ruthless.
ISRAEL PETERMAN—Late 30s. “Izzy.” A corporate raider. Sacramento-born. Intense, rough-hewn, tenacious. Eager to propel himself—by whatever means necessary—to the front ranks of American business.
BORIS PRONSKY—Late 40s. An arbitrageur. Makes money off rumor and intrigue. All facade, no substance. The proverbial little man in a big man’s body.
MANAGEMENT AND ITS ALLIES:
THOMAS EVERSON, JR.—50s. “Tom.” Chief Executive of Everson Steel and United, the erstwhile manufacturing behemoth and still-member of the Dow Industrial Average. The steel business has fallen on hard times, and Everson Jr. continues to see through the diversification of the company begun under his father’s regime. Though not quite the brilliant businessman his father was, Everson Jr. makes up for it with heart and in loyalty.
MAXIMILIEN CIZIK—Late 40s. “Max.” Investment Banker at Lausanne & Co. Adviser to Everson. Urbane, measured, sophisticated. Born in Prague, but brought up in America. Lausanne & Co. is a leading advisory investment bank, and one of the last of such still connected to the great nineteenth-century European merchant banks.
JACQUELINE BLOUNT—Late 20s. “Jackie.” Lawyer for Lausanne & Co. African-American. Harvard Law. Harvard Business. Appealing, ambitious. With balls and charm to boot.
LEO TRESLER—Mid-50s. A private equity magnate. Passionate, pompous, lovable, and very rich. A lion of a man with something of a Texas swagger, despite being born and raised in Connecticut.
GIUSEPPE ADDESSO—Mid-40s. “Joe.” US Attorney of New York, Southern District. Italian-American. Ambitious.
KEVIN WALSH—Early 30s. Assistant US Attorney, Fraud Unit. African-American. Punctilious and indefatigable.
JUDY CHEN—Early 30s. A writer. Third-generation Chinese-American. Thoughtful, penetrating, and undaunted by the titans about whom she is writing.
AMY MERKIN—40s. Robert’s wife, his business school sweetheart. A financial wizard in her own right. Merkin’s deepest collaborator.
SUPPORTING AND MINOR CHARACTERS
(Can be doubled as fitting)
MARK O’HARE—40s. An arbitrageur. Irish-American. Born and raised in the heyday of Hell’s Kitchen. A street fighter who rides the market’s currents.
CORRIGAN WILEY—50s. Attorney for O’Hare. Gruff and loyal. Hailing from a family that has served as counsel to generations of the Irish Mob.
DEVON ATKINS—Late 20s. An arbitrageur. A kid. In over his head.
MURRAY LEFKOWITZ—Late 40s. One of Merkin’s investors.
CHARLENE STEWART—20s. Assistant to Robert Merkin.
LAWYERS AND OTHERS: As needed.
A NOTE ON SETTING
Great lengths should not be taken to bring the various scene settings too realistically into being, for the events that unfold in what follows are conceived to take place on the stage of what we could call our collective memory. Put into other words, the play is a ritual enactment of an origin myth.
The premium must be on establishing and maintaining an unbroken, vital flow, with a fluidity evocative of the movement of the mind. Allegro con brio, if you will.
The insinuation of the mid-1980s in costume and design must not be overdone. The world evoked in the events depicted—the origins of debt financing—are not just a matter of the past, but represent an ethos and an ontology very much central to what we call the world today.
Quicksilver smarts, striking beauty. Alone on stage as she addresses the audience.
CHEN: This is a story of kings—or what passes for kings these days. Kings then, bedecked in Brooks Brothers and Brioni, enthroned in sky-high castles on opposing coasts, embroiled in a battle over, well, what else, money. (Beat) When did money become the thing? I mean the only thing? Upgrade your place in line, or your prison cell, for a fee. Rent out your womb to carry someone else’s child. Buy a stranger’s life insurance policy—pay the premium until they die—then collect the benefit. Oh, and cash. Whose idea was it to start charging us just to get cash?
—LIGHTS UP ON:
CHEN (CONT’D): The mid-eighties. 1985 to be exact. I’d been writing for Forbes, the Wall Street Journal. And yes, I was used to being surrounded by talk of money. But ’85 was when I started to sense something new. A pluck and pugnacity, a frenzied zeal in people’s eyes. It was like a new religion was being born…
LOS ANGELES. SACKER-LOWELL & ASSOCIATES.
Robert Merkin, Israel Peterman, Raúl Rivera. In the middle of a strategy session.
MERKIN: Izzy, Izzy, no. Don’t use that word—
PETERMAN: Which one?
MERKIN: Limit. Not when you’re talking about what’s yours…
PETERMAN: Even if I want to impose cuts—
MERKIN: That’s another. Impose.
RIVERA: Reform is better.
MERKIN: You are going to bring reform…
RIVERA: You have a vision.
MERKIN: Which is why you’re buying the company. To help Everson Steel grow.
RIVERA: Change. Transform.
MERKIN: Human beings are creatures of hope. When you talk about yourself, your company, always use words cut from the cloth of hope.
PETERMAN: Cut from the cloth of hope. Fuck me.
RIVERA: It’s good, huh?
MERKIN: But when you talk about them…
PETERMAN: Tom Everson?
MERKIN: Current owners. Current management. That’s when you use words like limit.
RIVERA: They are limited.
MERKIN: They don’t get with the program? They’re headed for crisis. Collapse.
MERKIN: Even better. But you. Your company…
RIVERA (Selling it): Saratoga-McDaniels…
PETERMAN: Has a vision for reform.
RIVERA: That’s good.
MERKIN: Right. It’s the things people don’t realize they’re hearing…
RIVERA: The echoes, the hidden logic.
MERKIN: The hidden logic. That’s what sinks in. Makes people not just think, but feel. That’s the way to their hearts.
PETERMAN: Is there a list or something?
PETERMAN: Of words I should use, not use?
Merkin and Rivera share a look.
RIVERA: I mean…—why not? We’ll make a list.
Rivera takes up a legal pad. Starts jotting. Just as…
CHARLENE, Merkin’s assistant, appears—
CHARLENE: Mr. Merkin, Murray Lefkowitz on the line.
MERKIN: Thanks, Charlene. (To Peterman, Rivera) Let me get this.
Merkin steps into—
—A POOL OF LIGHT.
—ANOTHER POOL APPEARS, SHOWING:
A schlemiel. The conversation is quick, percussive.
MERKIN: What do you want, Murray?
MURRAY (Beat): I know. I should have—
MERKIN: I gave up on you, Murr.
MURRAY: I’m sorry, Bob.
MERKIN: Did I do something? Did I say something—
MURRAY: Of course not.
MERKIN: So what is it? You can’t call me back? It’s crunch time for this new bond issue. You know that—
MURRAY: I know.
MERKIN: Okay, well… Anyway, we’re selling junk in Izzy Peterman’s company. Saratoga-McDaniels. For him to go after Everson Steel. The bonds are paying seventeen percent, quarterly coupon. Rated triple C like usual—
MERKIN (Over): Murr, I want you to come in for more than usual. We’re making our first play on the Dow—
MERKIN: Shoulder to shoulder, Murray. Deal by deal. That’s what we’ve been doing. Making ’em see we can be the big machers, too.
MURRAY: I, uh…
MERKIN: I need you. More than ever.
MURRAY: Bob. I have to talk to you.
MERKIN: So talk.
MURRAY: It’s Macie.
MERKIN (Sudden shift): Is she okay? Is your wife okay?
MURRAY: No, she’s fine. It’s just—she has a friend.
MERKIN: A friend—
MURRAY: Who’s married to Greenfield.
MURRAY: He went belly up, Bob. Bought a ton of junk from First City—
MERKIN: Greenfield’s a cheat. He was buying from First City because I won’t sell to him anymore.
MURRAY: I know—
MERKIN: Do you?
MURRAY: I don’t like him any better than you do.
MERKIN: Let me get this straight. First City’s peddling shit and calling it junk and you stop returning my phone calls?
MURRAY: That’s not it. Macie just—I mean—I’m at a hundred million in liquid assets. Bob, she just—she doesn’t want me—to take any more risks. She wants me to stop.
MERKIN: She? Or you?
MURRAY: I don’t want you to be mad.
MERKIN: Four, maybe five million? That’s what you came to me with seven years ago.
MURRAY: It was Macie’s money.
MURRAY: It was all hers. Her dad’s.
MERKIN: That was hers. The rest? I made you. I make you rich, you and Macie, then she hears about First City selling crap to that moron Greenfield and you stop returning my calls?
MURRAY: I was afraid.
MERKIN: Of what, Murray? Of what? Making money?
MURRAY: She doesn’t like that people call it junk, Bob. She doesn’t like me putting all that money in something that people talk about like it’s garbage—
MERKIN: It’s a misnomer, Murr. You know that, right?
MERKIN (Continuing): If I got you into bonds in IBM or GE, Macie wouldn’t have a problem with that…
MURRAY: Probably not.
MERKIN: Because she’s heard of those companies. Everybody has. But the returns on those bonds aren’t anywhere near as good as what I sell you. I am selling you into the future. That’s what you have to tell her. Izzy Peterman? Saratoga-McDaniels? Tomorrow’s Jack Welch, tomorrow’s General Electric.
MERKIN: Listen to me, Murr. We’ve known each other a long time.
MURRAY: I know.
MERKIN: We’ve come a long way. Since you sold me that T-shirt on Canal Street.
MURRAY: I remember.
- "[A] Shakespearean history play of spiraling national consequence." —New York Times
- "Akhtar smartly captures the amorality and toxicity of greed."—Huffington Post
- "an exceptional work."—Village Voice
- "Maybe, someday, we can live down the 1980s. But not any day soon, if Ayad Akhtar has anything to do with it"—Variety
- "engrossing from start to finish."—AM New York
- "It's a modern Shakespeare history war play....We don't have kings and queens in America. What we have are super successful Wall Street tycoons.— Steven Pasquale, actor
- "With 17 characters, JUNK is bigger in scale than Mr. Akhtar's previous plays, but it bears his signatures-it is fast, funny, ruthless and dark."—Michael Sokolove, New York Times
"Forget about all the TV pundits and op-ed columnists droning on about America's problems. Playwright Ayad Akhtar is the diagnostician the nation needs to interpret its faltering health.... In JUNK: THE GOLDEN AGE OF DEBT, his thrilling new play...Akhtar takes on the equally explosive subjects of modern finance and the new religion of money. And once again he provides an unflinchingly candid cross section of attitudes and positions in which our sympathies and antipathies keep shifting along lines that are too complex to be straightforwardly ideological.... What's most impressive about JUNK is the brilliant way Akhtar crunches the social, political and economic data of this greedy new world, a precursor to the way we live today."--Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times
"Whip-smart.... An intimate, accessible tale on an epic canvas.... Akhtar writes crackling, rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue like David Mamet, but it's infused with Shakespearean scope and pop-culture references. There are nods to the Bard's Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar and history plays, lines from the Bible and the 1987 film Wall Street and the freewheeling exuberance of The Wolf of Wall Street."--Pam Kragen, San Diego Union-Tribune
"A massively ambitious play. It succeeds magnificently on many levels, and it should head to Broadway where it will be not only close to Wall Street, but even more accessible to those many in the public with a growing fascination in finance, economics, and social policy."--Brad Auerbach, Forbes
"JUNK unfolds like a big, blockbuster novel-lots of twists and turns, and goods and evils (okay, mostly evils). It's an epic seduction, in fact, that involves everyone in the piece. At the same time, the playwright underpins the antics with serious themes and key questions."--Jeff Smith, San Diego Reader
- On Sale
- Nov 7, 2017
- Hachette Audio