Can a theater be the reason a play doesn’t work? I’m starting to think that about the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center. With its cavernous space, thrust stage and semi-circular, steeply raked seats, the place is fine for big musicals (The King and I, South Pacific), but tends to overwhelm smaller, more intricate plays. I had pretty much the same reaction to Junk, Ayad Akhtar’s new play about Wall Street shenanigans in the 1980s, as I did to the Beaumont’s last offering — Oslo, J.T. Rogers’ play last spring about the Middle East peace talks that led to the Oslo accords. Both take fairly dry historical subject matter and, in order to fashion a compelling drama, hype it to the rafters. Issues and motivations are oversimplified, people turned into caricatures, small confrontations blown up into nuclear explosions. And everybody yells.
Junk, to be sure, has its own problems. Akhtar (author of the critically acclaimed — by other critics — Disgraced) reaches back two or three scandals into Wall Street’s past, to tell the story of a Michael Milken-like figure using junk bonds to engineer a hostile corporate takeover, and the material seems a bit stale and familiar. The frequent expository dialogue (explaining, say, what a “poison pill” is) smacks of a business-school lecture. Nearly every character is some version of a cliche: the arrogant, cynical Wall Street whiz (Steven Pasquale), the earnest CEO trying to save his family company from corporate raiders, the schlubby investor who wants to back out of a shady deal (with a nod to Glengarry Glen Ross), even the now-overused device of having the play told in flashback through the eyes of a reporter pursuing the story.
Akhtar is a good craftsman, who knows how to put together a play; the action moves along briskly, and the issues are laid out clearly enough for most audience members to grasp, if not totally understand. But he bites off too much. The play has nearly two dozen characters, and seems more intent on leveling a broad-brush indictment of American greed — we’re all guilty! — than helping us understand the human roots of that greed. Moment to moment, Junk (directed by Doug Hughes, with an abstract set of flourescent-lit boxes, where actors often speak directly to the audience) doesn’t have the in-the-weeds authenticity of a film like Margin Call or even Wolf of Wall Street. It may be unfair to expect that kind of filmic naturalism from a stage piece. But especially not on the Vivian Beaumont stage.