Miriam Rinn
Miriam Rinn

CultureJew: A Play About Michael Milken and a Bunch of Movies

After a high-flying decade on Wall Street, Michael Milken, known as the junk-bond king, was indicted for securities fraud in an insider-trading investigation in 1989. By then, he had made many millions of dollars for his investment banking firm as well as for himself and shepherded a boom in leveraged buyouts and other financial high jinks, which either transformed the American economy or left it crippled and bleeding, depending on your perspective. Now Ayad Akhtar has used Milken’s experience to create his new play “Junk,” at Lincoln Center, which presents the central character Robert Merkin as a brilliant, arrogant, and ultimately destructive force.

Determined to take over a traditional steel company in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, for his client, Izzy Peterman, Merkin begins to manipulate the company’s stock with the help of a shady associate, Boris Pronsky. (Any similarity to arbitrageur Ivan Boesky is surely intentional.)  Merkin’s original proposition is that a company’s cash flow can be considered collateral in order to borrow huge sums of money, and that money can then be used to buy the company. The steel company’s third-generation owner, Thomas Everson, can’t believe he’s listening to such nonsense, but before he knows it, Merkin and his pals have made the company’s stock price rise dramatically and then fall precipitously. The board is unnerved, and Everson is guilt stricken about what will happen to the workers who have been with the plant for decades. A white knight is sought to buy the company, but will he be able to stand up to Merkin’s chutzpah?

Directed crisply by Doug Hughes, “Junk” has the satisfying structure of a “Law and Order” episode. We know the good guys and bad guys, and there isn’t much ambiguity about who to root for.  Akhtar gives Merkin the most interesting speech in the play at the beginning of the second act.  As Merkin, Steven Pasquale scorns the arguments of the legacy manufacturers and bankers who insist that American business and labor must be protected. Who says that American steel is better than Chinese steel, he demands, and why should an American father’s desire to provide for his family trump an Indian father’s desire to do the same? Trump is the operative word, of course, because Merkin’s trust in the power of global capitalism stands in direct contrast to the America First prescriptions of the current occupant of the White House. In that sense, the 1980s brought us the presidency of Donald Trump. Many of the people who lost jobs and money and faith in the American promise of ever-rising affluence voted for Donald Trump to “make America great again.”

Akhtar skims some fascinating issues here: Is there any actual value to finance, or is it just clever kids shuffling money around? Is making things, such as steel, morally superior to money shuffling? Why? Since capitalism always creates winners and losers, should we be concerned about who wins and who loses? These questions are all hinted at in the play, but Akhtar is too focused on the nuts and bolts of Merkin’s fall to dig deeply. These are essentially moral, therefore religious, matters, pitting material against spiritual values.

John Lee Beatty’s minimalist set and Ben Stanton’s lighting design contribute mightily to the play’s momentum, and for the most part, the large cast is excellent. Pasquale certainly captures Merkin’s cockiness and intense competitiveness.  Akhtar is the author of two other plays produced at Lincoln Center, the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winning “The Disgraced”  about a Muslim mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer and “The Who and the What.” He is sensitive to the delicate situation of minorities trying to navigate worlds that may be hostile despite insisting otherwise. As a Jew, Merkin is introducing new ideas into a largely static, traditional gentile world. Is the resistance he encounters due to his ideas or to his Jewishness? “Junk” does not shy away from the covert and overt anti-Semitism infusing American society, nor does it cast Merkin and Peterman as heroic advocates for fairness. Everyone in the play is scrabbling to get ahead, including U. S. Attorney Giuseppi Adesso, the character based on Rudy Giuliani, the government official who indicted Michael Milken and then went on to be mayor of New York City. “Junk” tells the tale of someone who might be a “shanda far di goyim” or the smartest guy in the room.

What’s at the Movies?

The paucity of good movies continues, but Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck” is worth seeing. Based on a children’s novel by Brian Selznick (who also wrote the screenplay), the film interlaces two stories set 50 years apart, switching back and forth between them.  Each tells of a 12-year-old child’s quest. In 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds, a delightful young deaf actress) escapes from her cold and bullying father’s Hoboken home to New York City to find her idol, the silent-screen actress Lillian Mayhew, played fetchingly by Julianne Moore. In 1977, Ben (Oakes Fegley) runs away from his rural Minnesota home in search of his unknown father. Ben has lost his hearing after a lightning strike and has been farmed out to relatives when his librarian mother (Michelle Williams in flashback) dies. Mementoes his mother kept make him believe that his father is in New York.

We realize soon enough that these two characters are linked and the fun is figuring out how. Haynes films the 1927 scenes in black and white and the 1977 scenes in a blurry, scummy style that reminds one of movies from that era. The movie has sweetness at the core and it’s appropriate for all ages, but it isn’t sticky or saccharine. The characters’ deafness adds another dimension to the whole thing, too. Superior editing keeps the mystery going. There are lots of scenes at classic New York City landmarks, including the amazing city map at the Queens Museum. If you’ve never seen this, it’s worth the trip.

Another film out there shot in beautiful black and white is “1945” by Hungarian director Ferenc Torok. In a rural village in Hungary, two Jews get off a train. News of their arrival spreads quickly, and the town clerk is visibly disturbed. His son is about to marry that day, and he is busy preparing for the wedding. His wife, however, doesn’t feel any joy at the prospect of her son marrying a peasant girl. Russian soldiers lounge about, making everyone nervous. An anxious, secretive mood pervades the town.

Many people worry the Jews have returned to reclaim their property. “You can’t get rid of them,” an ally says to the clerk, adding that since they all look alike, he can’t tell if the two men were residents of the town before 1944, when most of Hungary’s Jews were rounded up.

“1945” bears some similarity to the much better Polish film “Ida” in that both deal with the expedient cooperation of local populations in the Holocaust. The difference comes down to characterization. The Jews in “1945” are too dignified, and most of the Hungarian villagers are too venal for any one character to seem real. Torok has made a beautiful film to look at, but its impact is muted due to the iconic quality of its characters.

The men in “Thy Father’s Chair” are anything but iconic. In this fly-on-the-wall documentary, we meet two religiously observant Jews who are in the midst of having their Brooklyn apartment disassembled by a cleaning crew.  The men are slovenly middle-aged twins, and since the death of their parents, they have simply stopped–stopped cleaning up, stopped throwing anything away, stopped adopting feral cats, stopped living in a way that most people would think of as normal. Because their outraged upstairs tenant refuses to pay anymore rent until their apartment is cleaned and disinfected, they have agreed to hire a specialized cleaning company run by an Israeli (at least, he has an Israeli accent).

This may sound like an episode of those reality shows about hoarders, and maybe it is.  I’ve never watched one so I can’t tell. The filmmakers, Antonio Tibaldi and Alex Lora, use the camera as a tool of compassion rather than exploitation. Abraham, the twin we spend the most time with, can be balky and stubborn, but slowly he begins to trust the cleaning crew manager, who treats him with gentle though firm respect. Also notable is how kind the rest of the crew is to him and his brother. They must deal with people with this particular affliction all the time. Little by little, the apartment is cleaned and made habitable. I wouldn’t want to live there–or anywhere near it–but Abraham seems to be able to face the rest of his life with more equanimity.

Set in 2003, Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying” sends an all-star cast on a road trip to bury a young soldier killed in Iraq. Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne, and Bryan Cranston play Vietnam War comrades who haven’t seen each other in three decades. For some not very convincing reason, Carell’s character Doc asks the other two to accompany him to the burial in Arlington Cemetery. Cranston plays the alcoholic Sal, a bar owner in Norfolk, and Fishburne is the wild man Mueller who has found religion and become a pastor of a small church. The threesome travel to Dover Air Force Base to pick up the body, and there Doc decides that he doesn’t want to bury his son in Arlington but at home in New England. The three men get on a train with the coffin, accompanied by the young Marine’s best friend, Charlie (J. Quinton Johnson), and travel north. There are some funny stories, adventures in New York City, and a surprisingly touching scene with an excellent Cicely Tyson.

Linklater’s films often leave me cold, and while this is not bad, it feels unconvincing and forced at many points. It has the episodic quality of many road movies, and Carell gives the most convincing performance as the grieving father. In the final scenes, there is a strong sense of working class men losing their lives in meaningless faraway conflicts without having much understanding or recourse.  See it if you’re in the mood for a somewhat soppy middle-aged guy dramedey.

About the Author
Miriam Rinn is currently a freelance writer based in NJ, where she has lived for several decades. She worked as a children's book editor, a freelance writer and editor, and a communications manager for a nonprofit organization. She is the author of the children's novel "The Saturday Secret," which was recently selected by PJ Our Way. She has two married sons and four granddaughters.
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