David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross takes place in 1983. His desperate real estate salesmen will do anything to put their name on the board with a big sale. That would validate their worth, literally prove their goodness. Second place gets steak knives. That winner may use them to slit his competitors’ throats.
Ayad Akhtar’s Junk: The Golden Age of Debt takes place two years later. Where Glengarry’s sweat-stained thugs try to manipulate each other in a grimy Chicago storefront, Akhtar’s dapper thugs live in whole apartment buildings, fly their dates on private jets, and manipulate millions of dollars — and people.
Now in its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse, Junk is a huge play: three acts, two intermissions, maybe 30 scenes. It pinpoints a change in the country’s economic climate, when debt went from a burden to an “asset.”
Robert Merkin (i.e., Michael Robert Milken, “the Junk Bond King”) is a Wall Street phenom. Somehow he’s making 100 percent returns on high-yield bonds and whopping leveraged buy-outs. These suspicious tactics are not new: J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie broke rules back in the Gilded Age. What is new: Milken’s — er, Merkin’s — uncanny ability to convince clients he can underwrite their investments with impunity. “Merkin says” is all they need to hear.
His ideas and lifestyle have inspired a “leech-fest.” He earned $800,000,000 in one year — not the real figure, he boasts, which is even higher. At one point, he looks west from Century City and asks a woman what it would cost to own everything from there to the Pacific. She boggles at the thought. He sports an avaricious “I got this” gleam.
Junk centers on “the Deal of the Decade.” Merkin will “change all the rules” by making the first play ever for a Dow Jones Industrial: Everson Steel. One hundred years old, the company has diversified and now makes profits in all but steel. Thomas Everson, third-generation owner, cares for his 10,000+ workers and seeks responsible ways to improve the company’s flagging aspects. For reasons unknown, suddenly Everson Steel is “in play,” under consideration for a leveraged buy-out. Everson feels like Josef K in Kafka’s The Trial: why me? Why Everson Steel? What was our crime?
Junk begins in 1985, but it’s a kind of allegory for today. One way Akhtar traces the change is through language. Like high-yield bonds, “spinning” a subject was not new back then. What was, around 1985, were its more blatant uses. Everything had a “spin” put on it to favor the spinner. Most of Akhtar’s dialogue devises positive ways to say negative things. In short, to lie. “Debt,” for example, represents not an end but a “new beginning.” It doesn’t matter “what you call it,” a character says, “just don’t call it what it is.”
Spin, euphemism, ad hominem argument (attack the person, not the issue), glittering generalities — ah, yes, the language of today.
“The age of speaking truth to power is coming to an end,” another character says. And power, apparently, is as gullible to spin as Mamet’s salesmen.
Watching Junk unfold requires an adjustment, maybe even a scorecard. It moves at Wall Street speed. Short scenes introduce numerous characters and strands of plots and conclude with reverse blackouts: instead of going dark, they flash (expert lighting, Ben Stanton) and bang (Mark Bennett’s sounds); new squares light up, props roll out, and the pace never slows.
The speed’s impressive — and disturbing, since the movers and shakers make life-changing and life-threatening decisions off the cuff. At this pace, however, character development suffers. Most remain stick figures defined by their situation at that moment. Thomas Everson (Linus Roache) is one of the few, fairly developed human beings (quite sentimentally done, by comparison). The rest: little more than ciphers. But maybe that’s the author’s point.
At times it’s tempting to shout “whoa-up!” at some of the leaps — as when Merkin swears to his wife he’d never do business with Boris Pronsky, “the Prince of Darkness.” Later on, when she knows otherwise, she’s fine. Nothing’s changed. Surely, at least in some circles, that would count as a moral infidelity?
The play’s scope is also a strength, however. 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.
The acting, led by Josh Cooke’s cold Merkin and Matthew Rauch’s flaming Izzy Peterman, is uniformly solid. And John Lee Beatty’s set’s as ominous as Mark Bennett’s incidental music.
The entire stage shines like obsidian. For his The Tooth of Crime, Sam Shepard wanted an “evil-looking chair” center-stage. Beatty has one, too: a swivel-throne where financial royalty wheels and destroys. Rows of yellow-gold lights form two tiers of boxed spaces, five above and five larger ones below. The floor reflects and extends the lights downward, as if more boxes (offices? cubicles?) or floors of a large building lie below. Either that or, like the evanescent hopes Merkin and Co. sell, the reflections are just a mirage.
2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UCSD
Junk: The Golden Age of Debt, by Ayad Akhtar
Directed by Doug Hughes; cast: Annika Boras, Tony Carlin, Josh Cooke, Jennifer Ikeda, Jason Kravits, Jeff Marlow, David Rasche, Matthew Rauch, Armando Riesco, Linus Roache, Henry Stram, Keith Wallace, Zora Howard, Sean McIntyre, Hunter Spangler; scenic design, John Lee Beatty, costumes, Ben Stanton, lighting, Mark Bennett, original music and sound, Gabriel Greene.
Playing through August 21; Sunday at 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.