Rich or poor, savvy or ignorant; it’s no secret that Americans are seeing their financial status constantly change and for the most part, not for the better. The world premiere La Jolla Playhouse production of Ayad Akhtar’s “JUNK: The Golden Age of Debt,” adapted from his book, dives into the world of money, how it has changed from the 1980s. Doug Hughes directs.
Considering the unsettling amount of people who to this day borrow from payday loans only to find out they can’t pay them back; or the thousands who were affected by the home mortgage catastrophe that left many homeless and/or broke; or the surge of upstart entrepreneurs that fell prey to junk bonds or unreliable research; Akhtar has a foundation for this play to which many can (unfortunately) relate.
Akhtar co-wrote and starred in “The War Within,” a 2005 film about terrorism. His script was nominated for best screenplay at the Independent Spirit Award. His Broadway play “Disgraced” received the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2013.
“For a long time I’ve watched the corporate world secure sweat equity far beyond what’s right,” Akhtar said about why he wrote this play. “ ‘Junk’ is about the financialization of modern American life – about the rise of money as not just a tool but a product unto itself – through a fictional, even mythic retelling of the high-flying days of the 1980s. Today there is a lot of outsiders promising more than they can deliver or mega-stores invading towns and making smaller competitors go out of business.”
Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley said, “This play portrays their industry-toppling deals on stage in a style akin to Shakespeare’s ‘Henry IV,’ where the battlefield is a corporate boardroom, and the players are kings of finance.”
Akhtar’s enthusiasm is hard to mask as he delves into the thrills of the plot. And though the play doesn’t focus on them, archetypal characters of the past to tell a story about how their actions changed the world. He mentions high-yield bond kings such as Michael Milken and the Beverly Hills’ pioneering investment banker Drexel Burnham Lambert (a major Wall Street investment banking firm which was forced into bankruptcy in February 1990 due to its involvement in illegal activities in the junk bond market).
Hughes was a favorite to direct Akhtar’s work, thanks in part to recent Broadway productions: “Outside Mullingar,” “The Big Knife,” “An Enemy of the People,” “Oleanna” (the Tony-nominated revival of “The Royal Family”), “Doubt,” (for which he won a Tony Award for best director), and more.
“I’m very happy to have him as our director, and a wonderful cast of 17 who play 35 characters,” Akhtar said. “Eight are from New York, others are locals. I’m also very excited by our amazing design team, (which is) mostly from New York, and one of the greatest.”
A verbal leavening of the financial world is certainly worth seeing for anyone who has to deal with their own funds, and Akhtar said those who are mindful of the way many are struggling will enjoy it.
IF YOU GO: ‘JUNK: The Golden Age of Debt,’ runs through Aug. 21 in the Mandell Weiss Theatre at La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive. Tickets from $20. (858) 550-1010. lajollaplayhouse.org