Who Owns America? A New Play Ponders The Central Place Of Money In Our Culture

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At the start of Junk, the new drama by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ayad Akhtar now playing at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York City, the character of Judy Chen, an ambitious financial writer and journalist, sits alone in the center of the stage and addresses the audience: "This is the story of kings — or what passes for kings these days. Kings bedecked in Brooks Brothers and Brioni, enthroned in sky-high castles on opposing coasts, embroiled in a battle over, well, what else, money."

In the monologue that follows, Chen diagnoses the affliction affecting all the players in the story so acutely that we, the audience, are apt to see her as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the action happening on stage and the motivations that drive it. We expect her to be above the moral corruption that spreads, like cancer, into every part of this story. That we are hardly surprised when she, too, finds the lure of easy money irresistible, says more about our society today than perhaps anything else in this drama.


Though clearly a fictional story, Junk borrows heavily from the leveraged bond crisis of the mid to late 1980s and the people who shaped it. Financier Michael Milken, arbitrageur Ivan Boesky and federal prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani all have their direct analogues in the play — even down to their similar sounding names. More broadly drawn characters include an old-school private equity magnate, the second-generation owner of a Pittsburgh steel mill and a hard-hat wearing union boss. The action follows the contours of a single deal, the hostile takeover of a family company caught unaware when Merkin's financial maneuvers threaten to destroy their business.


This play and its playwright has garnered a lot of attention, and the question is: Why? Largely because we are now experiencing a world that the junk-bond crisis and market plunge of 1987 set the stage for. Thirty years ago newspapers and television shows were breathless in their reporting on the collapse of the market and fall of its titans. It felt novel and shocking at the time, but unless you were connected to the stock market or held your investments there, the way products and relationships were turned into objects of financial leverage could be looked at abstractly. No longer. As the playwright said in a recent interview, "If we don't figure out a way to control our urge to monetize every contact with each other we're going to go no place good . . . What this play is attempting to do is to go back to that last moment in our history when the battle for who owns America could still be waged."

Akhtar is a keen student of history and drama, so it's no surprise that references to another play about debt are sprinkled throughout the script. When William Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice around 1596, England's economy was being wrenched from an increasingly archaic feudal system based on social class towards a more modern one of banking and international commerce. It was not a smooth transition. Each model had its champions and detractors, and Shakespeare's two main characters, the Venetian merchant Antonio and the Jewish banker Shylock, represent these battling archetypes. In one particularly pointed speech in Act 4, Shylock throws back an accusation that his moneylending is an immoral crime with an indictment of Antonio's exploitation of indigenous peoples.

What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?
You have among you many a purchas'd slave,
Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules,
You use in abject and in slavish parts.

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When the financier character in Junk, Robert Merkin, addresses a conference of eager investors, Akhtar shows that he understands the power of hypocrisy as well as Shakespeare: "Let's set aside the revolting assumption that God doesn't bless other nations or that somehow an American father's job is more important to his family than a Chinese father's job is to his. Let's just set aside those lies. Those delusions. And let's stick with the facts. Fact: They are winning. Fact: We need to understand why. Fact: We need to change. When you stay blind, you can't change. When you can't change, you die. And that is what is happening in this country right now."

There are no heroes in this drama. The fictional Merkin and the real-life Milken are both indicted for securities fraud. Ivan Boesky and his stand-in, Boris Pronsky, go to prison for insider trading. Nobody ends up looking good, not even Thomas Everson, the owner of the besieged steel mill, who (spoiler alert) blows his head off in despair at losing his company.

Towards the end of the play, the journalist Judy Chen again addresses the audience. She has just finished her tell-all book about Merkin when she is approached by his lawyer. For a generous sum, he offers to purchase her book contract in exchange for not publishing it. She takes the buyout and invests that money until she too becomes wealthy. But, as she tells us, "I never wrote another word."

The evening I saw Junk, as the cast took their well-deserved bows, it occurred to me that this play could have easily been titled "Worth." How many times have we heard the phrase, "What's he worth?" Does it ever refer to a person's achievements, the lives she's changed or the people he's inspired?

Ayad Akhtar offers no answers, and neither does the play. Instead, we look into the mirror that it presents us with. What remains are uncomfortable questions.

Published here on Forbes.com
December 6, 2017