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Review: ‘Junk’ Revives a Go-Go Era of Debt and Duplicity

With that breakout work, Mr. Akhtar showed a gift for explosive terseness, packing fraught layers of meaning into the interactions of a handful of precisely drawn characters who turned ideological stereotypes inside out and back again. His command of a wide reach within close quarters was confirmed in his equally compact “The Invisible Hand,” which managed to be both a high-stakes hostage thriller and a Shavian debate on capitalism and Islam.

“Junk” finds Mr. Akhtar filling a much bigger canvas. It has a cast of nearly two dozen (with an even greater roster of characters). And it runs two and a half hours, making it the longest of Mr. Akhtar’s plays.

But with expansion has come dilution, and a sense that characters and themes are being stretched into thin transparency. This is not to say that Mr. Akhtar seems lost in the larger space afforded by this play-by-play account of one man’s bid to become a master of the universe. On the contrary, “Junk” follows a labyrinthine, economically dense plot with remarkable briskness, efficiency and accessibility.

Still, these assets never quite erase the feeling that what we’re watching is a tale we’ve frequently been entertained and alarmed by during the past three decades. Memorable onstage variations include two British imports that flopped on Broadway: Caryl Churchill’s “Serious Money,” a dazzlingly mannered account (in rhyming couplets!) of a hostile takeover, and Lucy Prebble’s spectacularly flamboyant “Enron.”


Steven Pasquale, left, and Joey Slotnick as characters inspired by Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky, in “Junk.”

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

On screen, there was pre-eminently Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” (1987), which created a new genre of Hollywood biz flicks, with such worthy 21st-century descendants as “Margin Call,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “The Big Short.” And insider-y boardroom back stories are perennials on best-seller lists.

At their best, these works have been enlivened by piquant details that summon the quirks and ravening egos of predators in power suits. With glory-courting characters inspired not only by Mr. Milken but also by the mayor-to-be Rudolph Giuliani and the infamous stock trader Ivan Boesky, “Junk” might have easily been a parade of similarly outsized personalities in overpriced clothes with big shoulder pads.

Mr. Akhtar deliberately and honorably chose not to pursue that route. In prefatory notes in the script, he says, “The insinuation of the mid-1980s in costume and design must not be overdone.” The play is intended, he writes, as “a ritual enactment of an origin myth.”

The myth, in this case, is the culture of debt, which Mr. Akhtar posits is one in which we are still immersed. He does so without undue speechifying or instructional exposition, as he chronicles Merkin’s takeover by proxy of a third-generation Pennsylvania steel company, led by a clueless family scion (Rick Holmes).

The script is refreshingly nonjudgmental. At one point, Merkin complains about how reporters always go for “the simple story,” with a good guy and bad guy, adding, “They don’t understand how the real world works.”


Mr. Pasquale with Miriam Silverman, who portrays his wife, in Ayad Akhtar’s play.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Accordingly, every major character is allowed to present the viability of his or her viewpoint. Whether old-guard Protestant patriarchal types or rule-bending Jewish parvenus (who face anti-Semitism barbs now and then), none of them are unconditionally lovable or loathable.

Unfortunately, none of them are entirely convincing either. This is partly a matter of casting. Mr. Pasquale (“The Bridges of Madison County”) renders Merkin as a handsome cipher. You never sense the obsessive and infectious passion that drives him. (His code name in his insider trading deals, by the way, is Moby Dick).

As a reporter determined to strip Wall Street to its seamy underbelly, Theresa Avia Lim never conveys anything like rabid ambition. In contrast, Michael Siberry, who plays her white-shoed love interest, is a blustery, sputtering figure, a persona that feels out of sync with the old-order propriety he is meant to embody.

In supporting roles, Matthew Saldivar (as a crafty lawyer), Matthew Rauch (as a crude tyro on the rise) and Joey Slotnick (as the Boesky stand-in) at least have expressive physical presences. But no one emerges as a fully defined individual.

And while Mr. Akhtar may have rejected many of the outer trappings of the Wall Street potboiler, he still hews to many of its clichés. That includes a woman being brought to orgasm by the idea of her decrepit lover’s financial power, and the antihero Merkin solemnly lying to his wife (Miriam Silverman) in the manner of Michael Corleone.

And while the script offers some amusing lessons in shading language with hopeful sounding words to pitch a deal, Mr. Akhtar’s dialogue lacks its usual original snap. “When did money become the thing — the only thing?” Ms. Lim’s character asks in the opening monologue.

It’s an ever-intriguing question, but you’ve heard it before. And for all his intelligence and focus, Mr. Akhtar seldom bucks the formula to provide answers.

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