U-M mines Ayad Akhtar's "Junk: The Golden Age of Debt" and the impact of the 1980s bonds scandal 


University of Michigan's production of Junk: The Golden Age of Debt

Pete Dickey, Henry Conner, Charles Lee-Rossing (in red hat), Sam Smiley, Victoria Vourkoutiotis, Lenin Izquierdo star in University of Michigan Department of Theatre and Drama's production of Junk: The Golden Age of Debt. Photo by Nick Carroll.

In Oliver Stone’s movie Wall Street, investor Gordon Gekko sums up what capitalism is all about from his point of view: “Greed is good.”

Playwright Ayad Akhtar takes a more nuanced look at American finance in his play Junk: The Golden Age of Debt, a play about the increased investment in high-yield bonds—or junk bonds. Akhtar’s play is loosely based on the rise and fall of financier Michael Milken. In the 1980s, Milken changed Wall Street with his embrace of junk bonds, the idea that “debt is an asset,” and his acquisition of debt-troubled corporations.

In 1990 Milken pleaded guilty to six counts of securities and tax violations. He paid heavy fines and served a greatly reduced 22-month prison sentence. He went on to become a philanthropist, especially noted for his contributions to medical research. In February, outgoing President Donald Trump pardoned Milken.

The University of Michigan Department of Theatre and Drama will present Ayad Akhtar’s Junk Dec. 2-5 at the Power Center, directed by Geoff Packard.

When searching around for a play to direct that would engage University of Michigan theater students and audiences, Packard chose Akhtar’s play for its provocative ideas but also for practical reasons.

The pandemic has had a big impact on the theater program with canceled performances and contact restrictions that have resulted in fewer performance opportunities for students,

“I was told to book a big play that would fill the Power Center,” Packard said. “So the first place I went was to a directory of all the plays that were done at [New York City’s] Vivian Beaumont since this is a similar footprint to the Power Center.”

Junk premiered at the Vivian Beaumont on Oct. 5, 2017.

“I had heard and read about other plays by the author and that led me to think that I could work on one of his plays. The subject matter, the pace of the script, I thought this would be a really interesting play to do with students and have them bite this off,” Packard said.

Akhtar won a Pulitzer Prize for his first produced play, Disgraced. Junk and other plays have also won critical acclaim and awards.

Junk has a cast of 22 students and was originally designed for a large stage. 

In addition to the right setting, Packard, an assistant director of acting and directing at the university, said that the resources of the university helped him and the cast deal with the complexities of corporate finance. He had a professor from the U-M’s Ross School of Business meet with students to discuss corporate takeovers.

Packard, two student actors, and a student assistant director gathered in a circle in a rehearsal room at Power Center to discuss the play that has been called “a fast-paced thriller” and that the Los Angeles Times called “Part Shakespearean history play, part The Big Short."

Aaron Klein, a senior BFA acting major from Honolulu, Hawaii, plays Robert Merkin, the character based on Milken. Patricia Joseph, a senior BFA acting major from Ridgewood, New Jersey, plays Amy Merkin, Robert’s wife. Tiara Partsch, a sophomore BFA directing major from Luxembourg City, Luxembourg, is the assistant director.

“I am interested in this origin story of our current financial system and I think it is one of the greatest untold stories of our generation or our time,” Packard said.

Packard said he wanted to explore the conflict of old systems and ideas against new systems and ideas and what’s left after old ideas are destroyed.

“I also like that this play doesn’t moralize the characters, it doesn’t give you a satisfying protagonist or a satisfying antagonist,” Packard said. “Everyone has a questionable motive at times and everyone makes questionable decisions they have to live with. It’s interesting for an audience to sit back and say, 'Hmm, I was really liking that character until ...' or, 'I thought nothing about a character until …'."

Packard said he’s not a scholar of finance or the history of capitalism, but as a director and actor, he’s been an observer of human behavior.

“I know what an ambitious person looks like and I know how those choices affect you and go through the world,” he said.

Aaron Klein said he did research on Michael Milken, but he realized that doing an interpretation of Milken wasn’t the right approach.

“It was the baseline that I looked at and analyzed and it certainly made for a complex person,” Klein said. “But I think, ‘What is the text?’ What is Ayad Akhtar giving us and what can I make of this character based on what this really brilliant playwright has given us? In terms of how do I feel about Merkin, I try not to approach this person from a place of judgment and try to find the human in all of these characters.”

He said Merkin is not the kind of protagonist or anti-hero seen in recent films about Wall Street.

“These anti-heroes, they’re bad people, but you root for them. I don’t think Merkin is that at all. He is portrayed as the human being he is,” Klein said. “He’s a person who cares about his wife, cares about his family, who cares about his job, but he also has these ethical misdoings. So finding that balance and the human is the first step.”

Tiara Partsch sees the play as an examination of the impact of our economic system on the values and intentions of the characters.

“Merkin is a modern Robin Hood, who steals from the rich, who does disturb this moral order,” she said, “What happens when Robin Hood is also human and greedy and individualistic and self-destructive at times? Everson [another character in the play] is a man who cares about his family legacy, who cares about people, and wants to protect these people; what happens when an individual is too individualistic or too scared of change to truly save people? There’s a beautiful duality to every character in the play.”

Patricia Joseph said Amy Merkin and other women characters in the play raise important philosophical concerns.

“She acts as a mirror to Merkin, reminding him of what they were meant to do in the first place,” she said. “It doesn’t always go as planned. I think the women all have important philosophical questions about choosing money over other things. Does money win out over your own passions, does money win out over family, does money win out over a relationship?”

The play will fill the large Power Center stage with a set design by Kevin Judge. 

“It’s constructed in a way that’s really performance and text-based,” Packard said.

He said the set was designed to accommodate the fast pace and multiple characters of the script.

“Our designer designed this set that is pretty abstract and interesting to look at as well as very practical with various stages for us to stage at different areas,” Packard said.

Packard and his cast hope that audiences learn something about our current economic situation through the human stories of each of the characters portrayed.

“I hope they are challenged by it,” Packard said. “Challenged by their relationship with money, their relationship with ambition, about greed and decisions in their lives. I don’t want to proselytize or teach them anything, it’s not that kind of play, but I do think if they think now a little more about the system that they’re under, that’s a good result.”

Partsch concurred.

“I would love to have them walking out thinking about power and how we all crave it at times and how destructive it is at times and to be astounded by the power of the production,” she said.

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

The University of Michigan Department of Theatre and Drama production of Ayad Akhtar’s “Junk: The Golden Age of Debt” will be presented at 7:30 pm on Thursday, Dec. 2, 8 pm on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 3-4, and 2 pm on Sunday, Dec. 5 at the Power Center on U-M's main campus. For tickets, visit tickets.smtd.umich.edu or call the ticket office at 734-764-2538.