Winning the 2013 Pulitzer Prize was a bit of a distraction for playwright Ayad Akhtar—albeit a welcome one—and it put a pause on his seven-part cycle about the Muslim-American experience. But that interlude also provided him the opportunity to write a play he’d long wanted to: Junk, beginning performances at Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont Theater October 5 before officially opening November 2.
“What I wanted to do was tell the story of how finance became the dominant philosophical ideology of our culture,” says Akhtar, who makes clear that Junk isn’t intended to demonize the American financial system or the masters of the universe who run it. “It’s easy to criticize capitalism and it’s even easier to enjoy its benefits,” he says. “This is how we live. These are the values. Rather than criticizing them, let me explore them in very complicated ways that make audiences not entirely sure how they feel about any of it.”
In a twisting web of 19 characters, the central storyline circles around Robert Merkin, a billionaire finance shark planning to take out a loan against a company he doesn’t own and use that cash to finance that debt and come back and buy the company.
If it sounds mired in bulls and bears, don’t worry. “What I want [the audience] to do is have an emotional experience of this process of capital,” says Akhtar. “If it’s really clear what the essential human action of the scene is—somebody’s instructing somebody, somebody’s stealing from somebody, somebody’s betraying somebody else’s confidence,” then Akhtar has faith the audience will emotionally invest.
Just as in his Disgraced, The Invisible Hand, and The Who and the What, for Akhtar, the interesting and the new—the opportunity for progress—lies in the moral ambiguities of people.
“[These characters] have some vision of the world that they believe in,” he explains. By assuming the character for whom he is writing is correct from their perspective, Akhtar argues all sides authentically—all brought to life by a powerhouse cast led by Steven Pasquale.
“Pasquale is going to do a really good job of confusing you,” Akhtar says with a smirk, because ambivalence is his goal. “The way you get people to understand something more deeply is to either have them fall in love with it or have them become so absorbed by an experience that they can’t stop thinking about it. I want to trouble the audience enough that they can’t release the play once they go home.”
Watch this clip from Akhtar’s last Broadawy outing, Disgraced: