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

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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.”

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The era depicted in his play “is where the Trump presidency began,” Mr. Akhtar said. Credit Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

When his wife warns him not to commit insider trading with Pronsky, Merkin responds: “How do you think J. P. Morgan made the kind of money he did? Rockefeller? Carnegie? They bent the rules. That’s how they made their fortunes. And the world lived with it. No, the world loved it.”

In Mr. Akhtar’s telling, Merkin emerges as a full-throated advocate for a cosmopolitan globalism that’s the antithesis of Trump/Bannon America-first populism. At an investor conference (an obvious reference to what came to be known as Mr. Milken’s Predators’ Balls), Merkin proclaims: “Let’s set aside the revolting assumption that God doesn’t bless other nations, or that somehow an American father’s job is more important to his family than a Chinese father’s job is to his. Let’s just set aside those lies. Those delusions. And let’s stick with the facts.

“Fact: They are winning. Fact: We need to understand why. Fact: We need to change. When you stay blind, you can’t change. When you can’t change, you die. And that is what is happening in this country right now.”

To some, this may seem a surprisingly benign, not to mention farsighted, view of Mr. Milken, who pleaded guilty in 1990 to six counts of securities fraud and was initially sentenced to 10 years in prison, later reduced to two.

Mr. Akhtar said it wasn’t his role, as a playwright, to pass judgment. “My job is to identify with all the different perspectives,” he said.

I asked if Mr. Akhtar had heard from Mr. Milken, now a philanthropist and chairman of the Milken Institute, since the play opened. “No,” he said, “but I have heard from some of his friends who saw the play. They think he should see it.”

In “Junk,” Judy Chen, a freelance journalist, abandons her tough-minded reporting on Merkin after he offers millions of dollars to buy her out of her book contract. She takes the money.

Something like this did happen. According to Ms. Bruck’s account in “The Predators’ Ball,” Mr. Milken tried to pay her off so she wouldn’t write the book. Unlike Chen in “Junk,” she rebuffed him. (At the time, Drexel denied that Mr. Milken had made any such overture.)

Mr. Akhtar told me that he didn’t mean to suggest that all journalists are corrupt, but that his play is about “the system, and the system has co-opted journalists as well.”

“We’ve all bought into the ideology of money,” he said.

But not everyone in the 1980s was driven primarily by money. Dennis Levine, the investment banker whose 1986 arrest for insider trading led to the unraveling of Mr. Milken’s empire, fatally underestimated the skill and determination of the hardworking, underpaid government lawyers investigating him.

“Only morons would work for $50,000 a year,” he memorably told his co-conspirators, assuring them that they had nothing to worry about.

Despite their vast collective wealth, Mr. Levine, Mr. Boesky and Mr. Milken couldn’t buy the verdicts they sought and were convicted and sent to prison. That was “a tribute to the American system of justice,” I wrote in 1991, when “Den of Thieves” was published.

Twenty-six years later, Mr. Akhtar said he was more cynical. “Your book had a strong moral underpinning,” he told me. But, invoking the alternate-reality towns of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” he added: “We’re in Pottersville now, not Bedford Falls.”

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