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Ayad Akhtar’s ‘Junk’ entertains, but big-money drama’s predictable

Steven Pasquale stars as financier Robert Merkin in

Steven Pasquale stars as financier Robert Merkin in Ayad Akhtar's "Junk," inspired by the junk-bond kings of the 1980s, at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater. Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson

WHAT ‘Junk’

WHERE Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, Manhattan

INFO $77-$147; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com

BOTTOM LINE Another frightening look at the U.S. financial market.

Money is the root of all evil, the saying goes.

But that’s a misquote. “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” is the correct Biblical quote, and it’s the love of money that gets the characters of “Junk” in big trouble.

Ayad Akhtar, author of the 2013 Pulitzer winner “Disgraced,” has moved from the religious (Muslim life has been a current of much of his work) to the U.S. financial market. It’s territory that’s been well mined on stage (“Other People’s Money,” the play that first taught me about hostile takeovers and poison pills) and especially film (“Wall Street,” “The Big Short” and so many more). But considering the economic crises plaguing us since the ’80s, when “Junk” is set, it’s understandable that Akhtar felt the need to give us his own entertaining if predictable take on the subject.

Financial wunderkind Robert Merkin (a smooth, slick Steven Pasquale) has discovered there’s serious profit in debt, and he bullies his associates to run up his substantial numbers. Akhtar says in program notes that the play is fiction suggested by “events in historical public record” and it’s not hard to tell he’s talking about Michael Milken, who spent nearly two years in jail for securities fraud.

Merkin suffers a similar fate, thanks to the dogged efforts of Giuseppe Addesso (Charlie Semine), an aggressive U.S. Attorney who’s running for mayor of New York City with a “tough on crime” campaign. If that sounds familiar, recall that it was Rudy Giuliani who led the government probe against Milken.

Doug Hughes’ staging moves briskly on a minimalist set by John Lee Beatty, where we go from boardroom to bedroom meeting some of the collateral damage: Merkin’s wife, Amy (Miriam Silverman), a financial whiz herself; the hapless investor Murray Lefkowitz (Ethan Phillips), who wants to back out but instead throws in another few million; and Thomas Everson Jr. (Rick Holmes), the CEO of the steel company Merkin’s trying to take over. There’s an underlying suggestion of religious bigotry, as Everson rails about a character named Israel or any of “his people” having a stake in the family company.

Perhaps the most intriguing character is Judy Chen (Teresa Avia Lim), the financial journalist who gets a little too close to the story, and in the end comes to a decision that surprises no one. For greed, this cautionary tale points out, can be contagious, and that is a frightening message indeed.

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