The Arena Stage production of Ayad Akhtar’s play “Junk” begins with a slender woman in her early 30s standing in a spotlight. Wearing an expensive black sleeveless dress and stiletto heels, she explains, “This is a story of kings — or what passes for kings these days. Kings, then bedecked in Brooks Brothers and Brioni, enthroned in sky-high castles and embroiled in battles over, what else, money. When did money become the thing, the only thing?”
The character’s name is Judy Chen; she’s a former financial reporter for the Wall Street Journal now working on a book, and she answers her own question. “Eighty-five was when I sensed something new: the rage, the ravenous zeal in people’s eyes. It was like a new religion was being born.” “Junk” tells the story of that creed and those monarchs, men such as Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky, powerful and then imprisoned financiers, renamed as Robert Merkin and Boris Pronsky in Akhtar’s script.
Nancy Sun, the actress playing Chen, has a special insight into this world of junk bonds, million-dollar bonuses and federal indictments. Between Sun’s 2004 graduation from the University of Pennsylvania and the belated launch of her acting career in 2010, she spent four years working on Wall Street, including two at Lehman Brothers, the fourth largest investment bank in the United States, just before the company’s 2008 collapse helped send the world economy into a dizzying downward spiral.
“Working at one of the big Wall Street firms can be very seductive,” Sun says. “There’s a sense of self-importance, that the deals you’re working on might end up on the front page. There was a lot of reinforcement that this industry was a big deal, and the media bought into that. When I said I was working at Lehman Brothers, people knew what that was, and that felt good. We used to say, ‘We bleed Lehman green.’ The play captures all that.”
Seduction is a major motif of the show. Lured by the promise of sky-high returns, investors are willing to go along with possible ethical and legal shortcuts. Tempted by higher-than-market prices for stocks, shareholders are willing to overlook the debt that’s being added to the company. Ensnared by a much richer, much older man, Chen is willing to overlook his clumsy foreplay for the thrill of riding in a private jet.
“It’s not really about the money,” Sun suggests. “These people already have more wealth than they know what to do with. It’s really about the power. The money is just a marker for where you are on the totem pole. Judy thinks, ‘If he can get that money, he must have power and through him I can get access to that power.’ She’s a single woman in her 30s in the 1980s; how else is she going to get access?”
Sun stumbled into this world of high finance. She had graduated as an English major, not taking a single business course. But she wanted to spend some time in Manhattan before she went to graduate school, and she needed money to pay the rent. She recruited interns for Wall Street and got hired by Lehman Brothers as a headhunter for junior analysts.
She left six months before the company imploded, not because of any special foresight but because she didn’t like her new boss. She moved to another headhunter company and was soon fielding calls from frightened bankers and traders as their whole world seemed to be crashing around them.
Before long, Sun tired of the 60-hour weeks and the nonstop pressure, and she used her Wall Street savings to take a year off in Costa Rica. While she was there, she remembered how much she had enjoyed acting at her suburban Dallas high school. So she moved back to New York and used some of those savings to take acting classes. By the mid-2010s, she was getting one-episode roles in TV shows such as “Homeland” and “The Family” and small speaking parts in movies such as “Bruce!!!!” and “Going in Style.” In 2017, she had a role in “The Hard Problem” at the Studio Theatre here in Washington.
“When I started acting,” she recalls, “I realized that going to auditions was a lot like those traders at Lehman trying to get investors to put their money in. You have to be ready to do anything to get the deal done, but you can’t show that desperation, that tenacity. The investors — or the directors — don’t want to know what they can do for you; they want to know what you can do for them. You have to put your best face on. You have to be a Robert Merkin about it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that actress Nancy Sun once had an internship on Wall Street. This version has been updated.
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300 or arenastage.org
Dates: Through May 5
Tickets: $41-$95, subject to change