"It's very much a historical thriller — and I'm a major sucker for those." Keely Enright, producing director of Village Repertory Company, brings Junk to Woolfe Street Playhouse this weekend, offering Charleston theater-goers a look at what she calls a "transformative time in American finance."
Written by Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar in 2016, Junk is set in 1985 and follows Robert Merkin, an investor who proclaims that "debt is an asset." The character of Merkin is based on real life financier Michael Milken, a "junk bond king," best known for developing the market for high-yield bonds (and later, for serving a prison sentence for securities and reporting violations).
"We know this precipitated so much financial destruction later on," says Enright of Junk. "It's interesting to look at it through the lens of time." Enright compares the play to the 2015 film The Big Short, which, while about a different period of finanical crisis — the 2008 housing bubble — also examines the effect of a few big financial players on the entire country's economy.
Junk also draws comparisons to the 1987 film, Wall Street, starring Michael Douglas, Charlie Sheen, and Daryl Hannah. In that film Douglas' character, Gordon Gekko (also based loosely on Michael Milken) declares that "greed is good." In Junk, says Enright, Robert Merkin believes that greed is god. But the play isn't heavy-handed. Junk isn't trying to teach us any lessons, says Enright: "It's not a morality tale. It's a very dry eye at a time that became crucial."
As one can imagine, most of the cast members in Junk — and it's a large cast, at over 20 actors — were either not alive or not old enough to understand what was happening with junk bonds in the 1980s. While a little background research is helpful, Enright says it's not necessary to get on board with what's happening in the show. While Junk is set almost four decades in the past, Enright insists that the story is very much "right now."
"It's affecting every single person right this minute," she says. "In the times we're in, money is all that matters to so many Americans. The thought is, 'If Wall Street's good, I guess I'm good.'"
In a 2018 interview Junk's author, Akhtar, talked about what the play's central plot element might look like today: "There is no way to tell this story today without it seeming an even more foregone conclusion. In a sense, the '80s was really the last moment when the outcome could be contestable. Today, the forces of finance are — for the time being — beyond anyone's ability to resist."
Akhtar, says Enright, does a great job of giving the audience information without bogging anyone down. Junk, while dealing with some dense financial material, is fast-paced and full of interesting characters — no heroes, per se, but real humans drawn to that really enticing duo, money and power. "It's such a fun, fascinating look at how we live," says Enright.
Although set in 1985, Junk is not full of "god awful '80s costuming." While Enright loves the '80s aesthetics, she says that Akhtar doesn't want this play to be an homage to a certain time period's style. "This play is not about just the period, it's not looking back at old, dusty history," says Enright. The set and the clothing won't take you out of the play. They'll gently guide you into the story. From there you can decide if, as Akhtar says, the forces of finance are beyond your ability to resist.