This latest work is a progression rather than a departure for Mr. Akhtar. He once again mercilessly examines a faith and culture — in this case, money and Wall Street — and his characters are subject to the pull of a powerful orthodoxy. An idealistic journalist in the story sets out to “torpedo every piety of this new faux-religion of finance” but edges too close and is compromised and subsumed. The drama is not an overt comment on the current political moment, but it is a kind of parable. It implies we have all been co-opted, having traded our healthy suspicion of people with vast wealth for something more like worship.
“The whole culture around rights, it’s valuable and it’s important but it’s not really what’s happening,” Mr. Akhtar said. Identity politics on both sides, he believes, has the nation “consumed and distracted from the real story.”
“Money,” he said, “is what’s happening.”
‘A Ferocious Interest’
Mr. Akhtar’s first reader and informal dramaturge on everything he writes is Steve Klein, a close friend, financier and jack-of-all-trades who has written screenplays and produced movies. The two of them are engaged in a long-running back and forth about the morality of capitalism and meaning of various arcane events that have taken place on Wall Street. I had lunch with them one day as they jousted about “QE,” which they somewhat helpfully explained stands for “quantitative easing,” and Mr. Akhtar insisted to his friend, “I’ve read the Fed minutes!” — by which he meant the minutes of a meeting of the Federal Reserve from 1979.
We were at BBar in the East Village, an informal place, and Mr. Akhtar was dressed in jeans and a white V-neck T-shirt. He often augments this look with an unbuttoned flannel shirt, which I’d heard referred to as his “uniform.” He has a shaved head, what usually appears to be a day or two of stubble and such an intense gaze that in a children’s cartoon he’d be depicted with gears spinning rapidly inside his brain.
His interest in finance is longstanding. When Mr. Akhtar set off for New York to become a writer, his father, who founded a cardiology practice in Wisconsin, made him promise to read The Wall Street Journal every day. He helped support himself by trading stocks, using as seed money annual stipends of $12,000 or so sent by his parents. “American Dervish” earned an $850,000 advance, huge for a first novel, and made him more comfortable. Still, I never got the sense that Mr. Akhtar is enamored of money — he lives modestly and works constantly — but he is fascinated by the game, its rules and its sleight of hand.
He had long wanted to write “a very big play about finance,” but his choice of subject can be taken as a statement: He is not going to be solely defined as an ethnic playwright. Having been a decoder of a strain of Muslim-American life — middle-class, educated, assimilated, though less comfortably so after 2001 — he has, for now, moved on.
“Junk” has had one full production, at the La Jolla Playhouse in California. The Los Angeles Times declared it “thrilling,” “suspenseful” and “dramatically enthralling.” The La Jolla’s artistic director, Christopher Ashley, got to know Mr. Akhtar in 2014, when the playhouse staged “The Who & the What,” his play about a young woman who undertakes a novel on “women and Islam,” to the consternation of her father.
“I would in some ways compare him to Tony Kushner,” Mr. Ashley said. “That’s a big thing to say, because ‘Angels in America’ is one of the most influential plays of my lifetime, but what he shares is a ferocious interest in the interaction of the personal, the political and the economic. His plays find a very intimate way to talk about the big things happening in America.”
Mr. Akhtar’s fast-twitch intellect can quickly access a range of subjects — from the Green Bay Packers to Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War to his enthusiasm for ABC’s “The Bachelor” and Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler,” his favorite play. He gave me a kind of heads-up the first time we talked, just after he had referred to the German philosopher Theodor Adorno. “I don’t mean to be overly pretentious,” he said, “but I am overly pretentious sometimes, and you will pick up on that, so if you hear me pontificating, just stop me.”
His work, however, is notable for its directness — it is all lean muscle and tension. It’s as if he disgorged all his extraneous words during his European Modernist phase. With 17 characters, “Junk” is bigger in scale than Mr. Akhtar’s previous plays, but it bears his signatures — it is fast, funny, ruthless and dark. (My favorite bit is when the wife of one of the main characters urges him into a can’t-miss investment — for-profit prisons — as she is nursing her baby.)
At our lunch that afternoon, Mr. Klein said that his notes to Mr. Akhtar are usually intended to keep the pace barreling forward. “If something gets in the way, I tend to see it,” he said.
Mr. Akhtar said they had “an endless debate about one line” in “Junk.” He laughed. “Finally, I just cut it. I was sick of it.”
I asked him about an incident that occurred during the London run of “Disgraced,” which in 2015-16 was the most produced new play in American theaters. At a preview performance, he was seated next to a woman as the dinner party at the center of the drama built toward an explosion. At the most chilling moment, his seatmate shouted, “Oh my [expletive] God.” It was a breach of theater etiquette, but I wondered if he liked it. “Yes, very much,” he said, adding that if he could, he’d arrange for such an outburst every night that “critics and tastemakers were in the house.”
An ‘Operatic’ Household
Mr. Akhtar was married at 25 to a French student he met in Paris his junior year of college and divorced in his mid-30s. She is an art curator. He described the end of their marriage as “like a death” but also noted that his best work came in the years after. They did not have children. For many years he was unattached, but he now lives with his girlfriend, an actress, in an apartment near Lincoln Center. He has close friends but he can go months without seeing them as he sinks monk-like into his work.
He is circumspect in talking about his family and relationships, and I had to push him some. I wanted to probe how someone who can give the impression of living in his head became a writer who drills so close to the bone that he makes theatergoers gasp.
The broad outlines of his upbringing are seemingly idyllic. His parents emigrated from the Punjab region of Pakistan in their late 20s, as part of a program to attract foreign doctors and scientists, and raised him and his younger brother in the generous-spirited Upper Midwest. Islam had not yet been politicized, and as far as he could tell, the mosque he attended was at most a source of mild curiosity in the neighborhood, perhaps a little exotic, like the first Thai restaurant on a block. The family home was big enough to have bedrooms for both sets of grandparents, who visited frequently from Pakistan, and he spent part of his summers traveling to see them.
His mother, a radiologist, was given a diagnosis of ovarian cancer just as he was starting school, was sick for much of his childhood and battled numerous recurrences until she died, at 72, earlier this year. He described a hot-tempered atmosphere in the household. “Punjabis are like the southern Italians of the Indian subcontinent, loud and operatic,” he explained. “There’s an extremity of expression and a willingness to go there. If you overheard calls with my family at certain extreme moments, if you wrote down the dialogue, you would think it was melodramatic even if O’Neill wrote it.”
Mr. Akhtar’s zeal for Islam, to an extent, took him out of his parents’ sphere. His father is a “militant anti-religionist.” His mother adapted her faith to American notions of self-help and became “sort of a Wayne Dyer/Oprah Muslim.” “I think she was maybe a little proud when I became religious,” he said, smiling and shifting into a lilting accent, his mother’s voice. “He’s a very holy child. He knows the Quran!”
For reasons that are unsurprising, Mr. Akhtar’s work has angered some Muslims. As the dinner party in “Disgraced” unravels, the character of Amir, the lawyer, offers up his opinion that the Quran is “one long hate-mail to humanity.” You could, of course, say the same of the Old Testament, but there is a more established tradition in the Judeo-Christian world of artists critiquing religious dogma and sacred texts.
In “American Dervish,” the characters inside the mosque express a great deal of virulent anti-Semitism. The novel is in no way admiring of it. One of its most sympathetic characters is a Jewish doctor who falls into an ill-fated relationship with the young Muslim narrator’s aunt.
Though there are no Muslim characters in “Junk,” there are lots of Jewish characters — many of them engaged in behaviors other Jews file into the category “bad for the Jews.” The ethnic mix in Mr. Akhtar’s work and dead-on portrayals are the product of a writer who has dwelled in several different worlds. His mother (like the mother in “American Dervish”) believed that American Jews were the model immigrants, assimilated enough to make it in the new land but respectful of their traditions. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when I got to college all my closest friends were Jewish,” Mr. Akhtar said.
He described himself to me as comfortable being an outsider. “I was on the outside in my own family, and I don’t mean that in a bad way,” he said. He has close friends, but they are not writers. If he has a tribe it is among other intellectual obsessives — types who would get interested in finance and plow through minutes of Fed meetings.
His early literary influences were Jewish authors writing out of their own first- or second-generation American experiences. “The first time I encountered a voice that I got, that I really got, was Chaim Potok,” he explained. “I was in my early teens. He spoke to the religious dimension of my experience, and also to my immigrant experience, because those people in Brooklyn, those Hasidim, were so much like the people I knew. I totally understood the arguments they were having in ‘The Promise,’ ‘The Chosen,’ in ‘My Name Is Asher Lev.’ I was 14 and I was thinking, I don’t even want to be a writer — I was going to be a doctor — but this is me. Do you remember the end of ‘Asher Lev’?”
I didn’t but went back and looked — the young boy at the center of the story, an Orthodox Jew whose paintings are considered sacrilege, becomes celebrated for his work but is ultimately cast out of his family and religious community.
There at Every Performance
Mr. Akhtar and the cast of “Junk” gathered in mid-July for a weeklong workshop in a basement space at Lincoln Center where several folding tables had been set up in a rectangle. It was a hot stretch of the summer, and most everyone came dressed in shorts or sundresses, but he was sporting his unbuttoned-flannel-shirt look over a T-shirt and jeans. He sat next to the play’s director, Doug Hughes, with a thermos of coffee and a bottle of some kind of green juice in front of him, looking straight on at the actors as they read their lines.
The stage and TV actor Steven Pasquale, whose character is a Michael Milken-like junk bond king named Robert Merkin, carried his script along with homework he had assigned himself — James B. Stewart’s “Den of Thieves” and Connie Bruck’s “The Predators’ Ball,” books chronicling 1980s Wall Street.
From “The Merchant of Venice” to “Glengarry Glen Ross” to “The Big Short,” writers have told stories involving money and commerce. (Mr. Akhtar’s “The Invisible Hand” depicted an American financier kidnapped in the Middle East for his investing expertise.) The more complex the machinations, the more difficult the storytelling. “Junk” is a fictional retelling of an era on Wall Street when junk bonds, or high-risk debt, were used by corporate raiders to take over companies. Some of the players, including Mr. Milken, ended up in jail.
Mr. Akhtar does not expect every audience member to follow every financial twist and turn, but said, “If the human stakes are understandable, if we understand the action of any given scene — somebody is lying; somebody is trying to steal; there is a vendetta — those basic human interactions will be understood. That was my gambit.”
When “Junk” played last summer in La Jolla, Mr. Akhtar sat through each performance of the monthlong run, in different parts of the theater, watching the expressions of audience members and listening to their responses so he could know which of his lines fell flat. Mr. Ashley, La Jolla’s artistic director, told me that it was common for playwrights to stay through previews as they continue to revise but “very rare” for one to stay from beginning to end.
At the workshop, Mr. Akhtar wanted to hear his post-La Jolla rewrites out loud. He had tweaked numerous lines. A whole scene had been cut — one of his favorites, but it did not move the story forward. Only three cast members had been in the previous production, so he also needed to hear how actors new to the play delivered his lines. “That’s actually better!” he said more than once when a cast member stumbled over the written words but ended up saying something that sounded more natural.
Both in its scale and the complexity of its story, “Junk” presents dramatic challenges. The rapid-fire, short scenes give a hint of Mr. Akhtar’s film-school background. Mr. Hughes told the actors that the drama requires “smash-cut energy.”
Mr. Akhtar kept up a sort of running commentary. “The Jews are really expressing American values,” he said at one point, “by innovating, working harder and taking risks. The rest of the Street is resentful.”
At times, Mr. Akhtar sounded as if he were teaching a graduate seminar at Wharton. He observed after one scene that a maneuver plotted by the corporate raiders probably contained a “13(d) violation,” a breach of securities law requiring large investors to disclose their stakes in companies. Most of the discussion, though, was more broadly dramaturgical. He wanted to make sure that the stakes were clear and that the play “fully turns the screws.”
Mr. Akhtar urged the cast to pay attention to a line from one of the characters near the end of the play, an older financier named Leo Tresler who is trying to keep up with the accelerated churning of money on Wall Street. “A man is what he has,” Tresler, who will be played by Michael Siberry, says.
Although his drama is set a quarter-century ago, “Junk” speaks to the present day. Mr. Akhtar believes that all the sound and fury and political chaos of Trump-era America covers for even greater shifts of money and power to the upper classes — and that we are looking in the wrong direction and have been for quite some time. “The new landed gentry are those who manufacture money, who have access to massive amounts of capital,” he said. “That’s the strand the play is really following.”
Work and Other Holy Pursuits
In the three weeks between the workshop for “Junk” and the beginning of full rehearsals, Mr. Akhtar went away — to an ashram in the Bahamas. He was exhausted. His mother’s death, after decades of illness, had rocked him more than he ever anticipated, he said. He was in Wisconsin at the end, but for most of the last five years, as his plays were being staged and he was traveling the world, he had not been physically present.
He is still a spiritual seeker, but the kind who cannot be contained by one faith. He has studied with Jason Shulman, a teacher and healer who incorporates ideas from the kabbalah and Buddhism. He’ll still occasionally worship at a mosque.
Work itself for Mr. Akhtar is a kind of holy pursuit. Elise Joffe, a psychotherapist whose friendship dates back to Brown, recalled being directed by him in an undergraduate production of Jean Genet’s “The Maids.” “We’d reach the point in rehearsals where we were feeling, let’s get out of here and get a drink, but Ayad would keep at it. He is ambitious and driven and disciplined, but at the same time he does the work for the work. He is dedicated to it almost as if it’s a spiritual practice.”
The question now is what Mr. Akhtar will do next. If he were just a novelist, his next book, following the promise of “American Dervish,” would be eagerly anticipated. He has notes and outlines for new novels, plays and screenplays. But he has spent most of the last two years writing for TV, first for a project that did not go forward at HBO after the executives backing it left the network. He is now developing a series for FX set in 1980s Hollywood. If it is picked up, he would presumably be the showrunner.
The last time we were together, I asked Mr. Akhtar if he ever worried that he should, so to speak, declare a major. “It’s a qualm that drifts in and out of my consciousness, but it doesn’t drive what I do,” he replied. “I’m guided by invisible influences. I’ll hear some odd voice urging me to do this or that, and until I do, I hear that voice.”
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