A terrific production of a smart play. What more do you want from the La Jolla Playhouse? A bit of sexy stuff? OK. Some gossipy snarking at current public figures? Sure. A formula for making it all better?
Starting there, you’re on your own. Dramatist Ayad Akhtar has seen, defined and displayed the problem. Solving it is the lifetime of labor that follows the flash of perception.
Akhtar called the play JUNK: The Golden Age of Debt and it’s set in 1985. But, he insists in perceptive remarks for the LJP printed program, it’s less about the junk-bond scandals that staggered the old-school financial world than it is the nature of wealth and its effect on a world driven by markets.
Debt, according to the solemn puritanism that has dominated practical financial survival forever, is bad. But in the 1980s a new generation of market swashbucklers began to sense that, as long as lenders were willing to bet on the success of their borrowers and accept as collateral wealth not yet on hand, debt could be good.
I hope I’ve got this right. Debt can be an asset. Sort of like pruning a bush can make it grow better. Taking over a publicly-traded corporation and cashing it in can make available the capital needed for newer and even more profitable corporations. High-yield bonds is a term that sounds sarcastic to me. They yield high if they yield anything. That’s why they became known as “junk bonds.”
That concept is the little motor that drives this fascinating play. And certainly the approach seemed to work back then. The 1980s were when talk of “millions” changed to “billions.”
But the nasty side of the story is the wedge that continues to widen the separation of the top 1% from the rest of us.
All that wealth has to come from somewhere. The example in the play is an old-line steel company, operated by generations of the same family. But foreign factories can make steel as good or better without the large payroll and benefits, the ageing equipment and the demands of the stockholders. The solution of the corporate raiders is to harvest the assets and put them in something more profitable, like buying up even better-off corporations. Etc., etc.
And where does this created wealth go? In the end, says one of Akhtar’s characters, “what a man has is what he is.” So all these strutting, high-energy guys teetering on the edge of what’s legal, are merely in competition to see who can amass the most toys.
The bubble doesn’t burst, it just deflates. When everybody is this greedy and this susceptible to rationalization, somebody’s going to stumble. And just as with a string of mountain-climbers roped together, the more guys who start falling, the more the danger mounts for the rest.
When the field is cleared, new players begin to show up and the bubble starts to inflate again.
The play isn’t a lesson in economics, more a thriller without actual blood. Thanks to Akhtar’s writing and Doug Hughes’ superb staging, every one of the 23 roles is an individual. A few moments and any of us could guess each life story. This efficiency allows more room for the squirming plot and the darts of deadly insight. There’s even room for some economics, sort of like the science in science fiction.
Since this is a world crawling with lawyers, Akhtar is firmly non-specific about the identity of his characters. Sure, the guy who slightly resembles Donald Trump is a loud-mouth vulgarian but he’s smart, too. The federal attorney with political ambitions does seem a lot like New York Mayor Giuliani. And a few of the others could be seen as the supporting players in the junk-bond era.
But Josh Cooke, as the master-mind bond trader in the play, lean and intense, really does resemble Michael Milkin, the big fish in the feds’ clean-up of financial frauds around the junk bond business. Cooke uses a mesmerizing, awesomely controlled mixture of sincerity and challenge and dreamer to make plausible some pretty exorbitant decisions. He’s enough to make me liquidate everything, put it under the mattress and sit there with my shotgun.
The entire cast, with a couple of very minor exceptions, is splendidly chosen. (I can’t remember ever mentioning a casting office in a review, but here’s to you, Caparelliotis Casting.) At random, I might note Annika Boras, bright, wifely, decent and sexy all at once as the boss’s helpmeet, right up until the moment when he tells her that first lie. Or Linus Roache as the steel heir, a hapless romantic trapped in a time warp. Or Henry Stram, Zakiya Iman Markland and Armando Riesco as trusted courtiers of the wealthy. Or Jeff Marlow, Mathew Rauch, Sean McIntyre and Jason Kravits has hustlers of assorted capability.
Only one characters addresses the audience directly, Jennifer Ikeda as a digging journalist who finds something attractive about the Trumpish David Rasche character, or least his money. In the end, she’s promised $50,000 to just dump her book, an offer that rapidly ascends into the millions. Does she bite? What do you think?
It’s a smooth, tight, controlled ensemble that Doug Hughes has pulled together, purposeful without losing humanity, not afraid to be static. And I was especially gratified that Hughes took no time to linger over the politically-incorrect morsels of another era. The points were allowed to score themselves.
John Lee Beatty’s set, in the familiar LJP style of two-story platforms augmented by bed, bench or chair as needed, is minimal and efficient, with Ken Stanton’s hard-edged swaths of illumination and the countless tiny fairy lights tightly edging the squares. Mark Bennett provides a landscape of sonic whaps.
The costumes for 1980’s financial seem an assignment simple enough: That’s when the term “suits” was born and the end came in sight. But William Mellette has done more with detailing. Who wears suspenders or a watch chain or a tie-clasp. That sort of thing. Most useful.
There’s a brief but odd second intermission in a show already running long. No harm done. The ending is worth the wait. Our boy Merkin in prison.
(According to Wikipedia, the real Michael Milken managed to negotiate 98 federal counts of insider trading, tax evasion and so forth down to just five. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison plus stiff fines and restitution that eventually totaled about $1.1 billion. The sentence was reduced when an accounting showed his profits were far less than expected. With parole for good behavior, he served just 20 months and promised to stay away from the securities trade. By 2010, he was ranked in Forbes Magazine as the 488th richest person in the world.)
A relaxed Merkin is seen in outdoor shade scribbling with pencil and chatting up his guard. He points out that the guard could take what he’s paying in rent and buy a nice house if only he could find a down payment of, say $8,000. The guard confesses that’s impossible, saying all he has is debt.
And suddenly, Merkin gets that far-off look in his eye…
(Continues eight performances weekly through Aug. 21. 2016, in the Mandell Weiss Theatre, UCSD.)