The last time Akhtar was represented at Arena Stage, it was with his Pulitzer-winning drama “Disgraced,” about a Muslim American lawyer flummoxed by conflicting cultural loyalties. “Junk” — a deep plunge into the high-yield-bonds fiasco of the late 1980s, which landed junk-bond king Michael Milken in prison — lacks some of the engrossing cultural crosscurrents that made “Disgraced” so dramatically potent.
But Akhtar has also tightened “Junk” since its New York debut at Lincoln Center Theater in 2017. The result is a more easily digested and absorbing treatment of how a clever debt manipulator — in the guise of Keegan’s Robert Merkin — managed to gut a company and subvert investment norms to grandly enrich himself and his confederates.
So if you’re inclined to immerse yourself in a lesson about how cherished American values such as playing fair and honest labor can be vanquished by a shady mastermind, “Junk” is your ticket. Director Jackie Maxwell, former artistic head of the Shaw Festival in Canada, opts for minimal trappings on Arena’s Fichandler Stage, letting Akhtar’s muscular prose do the talking. It’s a far more successful handling than that of the original production, which isolated the characters — coldly — in an elaborate, two-tiered grid that subdivided rather than serviced the progress of malevolent events.
Under Maxwell’s direction, desks and characters flow in through the corner entrances of the Fichandler space, moving us fleetly through the story of Merkin’s bloodless assault on an underperforming, family-run manufacturing company, led by Edward Gero’s Thomas Everson Jr. As with many of the supporting performances on this occasion, Gero’s mournful, beleaguered CEO carries a magnitude of authenticity that the original production never encompassed. The impression extends to other incisive portrayals such as that of Jonathan David Martin, as the rapacious executive frontman for Merkin’s scheme; Elan Zafir, in the role of a slippery financial middleman; Kashayna Johnson, playing a corporate double-dealer; Lise Bruneau, as a frustrated adviser to the hidebound Everson; and David Andrew Macdonald, portraying a millionaire investor who goes up against Merkin and his attack on Everson’s company.
Just to make clear that this large cast forms an across-the-board smooth operation, allow me also to name Nancy Sun, in a turn as an opportunistic Wall Street journalist; Michael Glenn, playing yet another bad seed in Merkin’s garden; and Shanara Gabrielle, as Merkin’s enabler of a wife.
And I haven’t even mentioned Michael Russotto, who plays a lily-livered, easily seduced investor who has eyes only for his payout.
It’s important to tick off the names because “Junk” really is at its heart a mosaic of turpitude. It’s “Law and Order” without the order. As Akhtar would have it, even the good guys live in a world of moral ambiguity. We catch sight of the intense U.S. attorney for New York’s Southern District (Nicholas Baroudi) who not only pursues Merkin, but also rubs political elbows with some the rich bad eggs who are allied with him. The dramatist also plants the idea here that the old line prejudices of Wall Street — traditionally barring social and financial doors to Jews like Merkin (or Milken) — have contributed to the illegal pushback. When smart players eager to enter the game feel as if the deck is stacked against them, Akhtar seems to be asking, is it not the American way to seek to reshuffle it?
Keegan capably shoulders the bulk of the weight of unprincipled behavior here. As he did as the closeted gay Mormon lawyer in the Round House/Olney Theatre revival of “Angels in America” a few years ago, the actor here manages to wrap a complex psyche in choirboy earnestness. Only by degree do we sense how completely Merkin’s impulse to dominate, to conquer, and to hell with the consequences, compels the character. Which makes Keegan a compelling vessel himself. Like other actors with a talent for putting a benign, even boyish, mask over unclean intentions, Keegan would be well-advised to keep in touch with the devil he knows.
Junk, by Ayad Akhtar. Directed by Jackie Maxwell. Set, Misha Kachman; costumes, Judith Bowden; lighting, Jason Lyons; sound, Darron L West; fight director, Lewis Shaw. With Jaben Early, Perry Young. About 2 hours 10 minutes. $41-$105. Through May 5 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300. arenastage.org.