Ayad Akhtar and Steven Pasquale Follow the Money Behind America's Cultural Junk
The new Broadway play takes a page out of Shakespeare's histories.
If playwright Ayad Akhtar hadn't won the Pulitzer Prize for his compact, high-stakes racial drama Disgraced in 2013, his sweeping new work Junk, which is set in the financial sector, would be a very different play.
"I thought, OK, if I write something this robust and this ambitious, it could actually get made," Akhtar recalls. "If [the Pulitzer] hadn't happened, I probably would have still written about this, but it would have been much smaller."
Akhtar makes a compelling argument, however, as to why this history play, which takes place in the 1980s and is loosely based on "junk bond king" Michael Milken, would suffer from a narrower scope. "I feel like what's really happening in America is something people don't talk about," he says, explaining a point he's made frequently — that "money is the big story" behind all our current cultural conversations. "Economics comes first and behavior follows," he continues, paraphrasing Max Weber's 1905 work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
Like his plays, a conversation with Akhtar is rife with heady references and insightful revelations about the human experience. But just as Disgraced managed to explore the intricacies of racial prejudices in America without ever moralizing, Junk finds a way to tell its esoteric story about insider trading through the lens of real people.
"It's impossible!" laughs Steven Pasquale, who plays Junk's Milkenesque character, Robert Merkin. "That's why this play is a work of staggering genius. That is an impossible task."
Ayad, how did you create a play that audience members who know nothing about finance would be able to connect with emotionally without sacrificing specificity?
Ayad Akhtar: In thinking about writing a play about American history and why our country has become what it is, I thought, "What better to look at as a template then Shakespeare's histories?" Those stories are concoctions that tell the myth of England and shape how people think about their own history, and the thing that's so amazing about Shakespeare is that he's able to do philosophy and policy and poetry and romance and dirty jokes and all of it at the same time. So that was the template. I wanted to write Law and Order meets Wall Street meets Henry V.
Bob Merkin is such a complicated character. How have audiences been reacting to him?
Steven Pasquale: The most successful thing about the play in my mind is the audience's constant struggle with not knowing how they feel about this character. Manipulating an audience is an incredibly thrilling feeling, and never have I felt the ability to manipulate an audience more than I do in a speech I have at the top of Act 2.
Ayad Akhtar: In that speech one of the things that Bob is trying to do, and which I think Steven plays so well, is to lean into what people think is moral today. It's about equality and what his vision of capitalism is: It's not about what color you are, what country you're from — you're human.
Steven Pasquale: Sometimes they just start clapping because they agree with him so vehemently. It's sort of like churchgoing. You actually think maybe he's right, but then your common sense tells you, he's absolutely wrong. Common sense will tell you that you can't operate in this way. In that moment, they want to either roar to their feet or judge him so harshly.
Ayad Akhtar: The goal of the dramaturgy is in a sense, to make our ambiguous ever-changing complicated relationship with capitalism itself — all of its contradictions — [a mirror of] our relationship with Bob Merkin.
Steven Pasquale: One of the questions the play asks is, "Would you go to jail for two-and-a-half years if you could walk away with two-and-a-half billion dollars?", and who would say no? We take the money in this country; that's what we do.
Everything about the play is complex, which is why I like it. I'm so often asked to play the earnest, truth-telling, solid protagonist. This was exciting, to play someone who lives in the gray entirely. It's not like a Sopranos thing where you love how villainous he is.
Why do you consider money to be the "big story" behind our other cultural conversations?
Steven Pasquale: Ayad often says, "Who do we worship in this country?" We worship the people who have made the most money. Not necessarily our greatest minds, our most empathetic people, even our greatest artists.
Ayad Akhtar: I think that what has happened is we don't have a meaningful definition of "we" anymore. I think that we used to know who "we" were. And that "we" was problematic. But at least it existed. At the beginning of the '80s, Nixon introduced a new way of being, which was a much more cynical, "I"-centered individualism which became enshrined by policies through the legislating and idealizing of the accumulation of wealth. That to me is at root the largest transformation in our value system and accounts for how we have gone from being citizens of a republic to customers to the republic.
Where we used to be promised the protections of health and education, those things are now all available to us if we can pay for them, and we are told that the system's responsibility is to offer those things to us at the lowest price, and that becomes the justification for increases in productivity that throw people out of work. The effects are manifold. We have a world now where everything — our deepest human intimacies — are nothing more than transactions.