When a show officially opens on Broadway, the script of that production is traditionally the official version of the show. (Of course, there are exceptions—yet another revision of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along currently runs Off-Broadway, a 1994 revival of Show Boat saw major revisions…but for the most part Broadway sets the text.) Yet after Junk bowed on Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater January 2017—and earned a Tony nomination for Best Play that season—playwright Ayad Akhtar did some tinkering after seeing two different German-language productions of his play.
“They streamlined the text in ways that I thought were interesting, especially theoretically,” says Akhtar. So he picked up his pen again, this time with red ink. The two-act thriller about junk bond kings in the 1980s became a one-act; Akhtar trimmed material where the act break used to live; he added a brand-new final scene. This version debuted at Milwaukee Rep in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and begins at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., April 5.
“The play seems to have a different kind of absorption,” says Akhtar of the one-act rewrite. “The fact that there was not a release for the audience at intermission seemed to immerse them in the problems of the play in a way that I felt was very helpful.
“They can stew in the ideas and the world and the characters and the textures of the play without being thrown out during an intermission where they ask themselves ‘Wait a second, did I really understand that [financial principle]?’”
Still revolving around 22 characters, the play finds more solid ground. As Akhtar has asserted all along, “It’s not really about whether you get that stuff, and that’s why it’s got to move so fast, because it has to stay ahead of those questions for the audience.”
Junk, while laden with finance jargon, is really about the backdoor deals, the betrayals, the schemes, the drama. It’s the emotion and “experience, rather than the transmission of some kind of knowledge,” he says. “It’s a thriller! In the best thrillers, you don’t want to pause it and go to the restroom.”
Akhtar feels the revision kicks up the adrenaline, and emphasizes the underlying current about immigrant identity and American culture.
“I’m hoping people can zoom out just a little bit and see that what’s been going on in the country has a lot more to do with finance than it does to do with identity politics,” Akhtar asserts. “We are increasingly ensnared by these various points of view and all the while the country continues to be sold out from under us—from under all of us.
Junk isn’t the first time Akhtar has re-worked a play of his after its most high-profile production. The Invisible Hand has three different versions, The Who & The What two, Disgraced already has three different versions, and Akhtar just finished a new film adaptation of that Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
“Every time I’m up at the plate, I learn something,” he says. “And I definitely have learned a lot through the process of getting this play up now five or six times. I’m excited for the next play.”
From the man who’s covered Islamophobia, racism, and the monetization of American lives, what will come next?
“[It] will also be ambitious,” he hints. “Maybe not in terms of cast size, but certainly in terms of thematic and human scope.” Building excitement like the true writer of a thriller.