‘Junk’ Mines the Milken Era for Truths That Resonate Now

Perhaps it has taken the perspective gained over nearly three decades to see what a turning point in American history the late 1980s turned out to be, and how they shaped, as Mr. Akhtar puts it, “the world we inhabit today.”

“The 1980s represents a collapse of a collective vision of who we were as Americans,” Mr. Akhtar told me last week when we met to discuss his play. “This is where the Trump presidency began.” (As one character puts it: “We used to be a country that paid our bills. That made things.”)

“I believe Milken was a great genius,” Mr. Akhtar continued. At the same time, “there’s something demonic about genius.”

“You’re not going to find prevailing notions of morality in someone who’s really thinking outside the box,” he said.

Mr. Akhtar, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2012 play, “Disgraced,” doesn’t minimize the fictional Merkin’s crimes. (He engages in a blatant insider trading conspiracy with Pronsky, something Mr. Milken never admitted and insisted never happened.) But Merkin says he has no choice. He’s an outsider to privilege, partly because he’s Jewish and partly because he threatens the existing order.

Referring to the chief executive of his latest target, Merkin says: “We’ve dealt with guys like this our whole lives. Guys who’d laugh at us, we tried a get a job at their banks, their firms, whatever. Shut out our dads. For God’s sake, my father? Graduated top of his class, Brooklyn College. Couldn’t get an interview at Hartford, Jordan Guaranty, half a dozen other white-shoe firms in the city he’d had his heart set on. Because he was a Jew. Here’s a guy. Loyal. To a fault. Sharp as a razor. Good with numbers.” All he could aspire to was “balance the books of dry cleaners and dentists.”

When his wife warns him not to commit insider trading with Pronsky, Merkin respondss: “How do you think J. P. Morgan made the kind of money he did? Rockefeller? Carnegie? They bent the…

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