Credit: C. Stanley Photography

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It is tempting and reductive to compare Junk—Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar’s 2016 play—to other dramas about the financial industry. Sure, the characters and situations have a superficial similarity to films like The Big Short and The Wolf of Wall Street, but what Akhtar accomplishes is unique, especially for theater. Big personalities define these films, while Junk has more interest in the amoral milieu where destructive, hostile takeovers can thrive. With a large ensemble and detailed plotting, there is barely an opportunity for the audience to relax.

The play takes place in 1985, but director Jackie Maxwell and her team avoid any kitsch and nostalgia from the period. There are few props, and the costumes do not call attention to questionable ’80s fashion. Akhtar, Maxwell, and the cast share a common purpose in telling a labyrinthine procedural as efficiently as possible. Scene transitions are brisk—many actors rush to enter and leave the stage—with rapid-fire dialogue that has a plausible mix of exposition and character detail.

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Our entry point is Robert Merkin (Thomas Keegan), a brilliant financial analyst who made headlines by declaring “debt is an asset.” Merkin is part of a team that wants to buy the fictional company Everson Steel using junk bonds and break it up for scrap. Everson Steel’s leader, Thomas Everson (Edward Gero), sees Merkin as an enemy, so he looks for another buyer who can save the company rather than destroy it. On top of that, we learn Merkin made his fortune through insider trading, and the U.S Attorney’s office is close to investigating him. Junk follows these stories until they clash in brutal, sometimes heartbreaking ways.

Akhtar’s script includes lots of financial minutiae. A lot of it may go over your head, but Akhtar doubles back and lets characters explain their plans. The cumulative effect allows you to hum the tune even if you don’t know every single note. Characters who do not want to get rich but do have something to prove emerge; dollars, percentages, and indictments are just how everyone keeps score. So many modern plays are light on narrative, with a focus on characters in unique or challenging situations. Junk is the exact opposite: It is as narratively dense as a thriller, and yet on stage is the only place this material could work. Actors must share the performance space, so each power lunch, conference call, and board room meeting comes with a suffocating sense of intimacy.

The nature of such a production means that few performers get a chance to showboat. There are many arguments and borderline nonstop profanity—think David Mamet, without the staccato rhythm—so the play succeeds and fails based on the greater ensemble. Thankfully, all the actors rise to the occasion, finding nuance even among characters who could have easily veered into caricature. Elan Zafir, playing Robert’s white collar accomplice Boris, for example, at first seems sleazy, but he is also more honest than Robert, whose attempts at legitimacy fall short.

One intriguing undercurrent in Junk is how anti-Semitism plays a role in what happens to Everson Steel. Robert and his superior are Jewish, while Everson and his preferred buyer are old money WASPs. At first, the prejudice is only implied: The older characters complain that Robert and the others are driven by unseemly greed, as if their own motives are more pure. As Robert’s takeover becomes more likely, some characters are quick to fall back on slurs. Like in Akhtar’s 2013 play Disgraced, he sees how prejudice lurks under the civilized, sophisticated veneer everyone has created for themselves. This is also a handy way for the audience to shift its sympathies. By the time the breakneck pace slackens and each narrative thread is resolved, you may be surprised how your allegiances align. 

1101 6th St. SW. $56–$95. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org.