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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Akhtar has previously managed to bring a cornucopia of major issues to impressive dramatic life with his Pulitzer prize winning Disgraced and the too little seen The Invisible Hand . With Junk, which takes its title from the high-risk, high-yield securities that caused such havoc in the financial markets during the 1980s, he's enlarged his explorative vision to a Shakespearian scale in terms of its plots and sub-plots and large cast of characters played by 23 actors (some playing more than one role).
The story of wheeling and dealing Wall Street number crunchers who populate his new play Junk His subject here is more familiar, since the shenanigans of money worshipping wheelers and dealers has been done in print, on screen (Liar's Poker, Wall Street, The Big Short) and on stage (Enron). Though perhaps not stuffed with forever treasured quips as most Shakespeare plays or without one really unforgettable quote like Wall Street's "greed is good", Junk is nevertheless smartly scripted, and integrates multiple issues into the main plot (e.g.— established WASP establishment characters versus upstart Jews and Latinos) with Shakespearian flair
Audiences familiar with the entrepreneurial shenanigans of the 1980s will have no problem recognizing the real people represented by the play's fictionalized versions — especially the kingpin character, here named Robert Merkin. He's loosely butt obviously based on "Junk Bond King" Michael Milken (Stephen Pasquale, doing an on the nose greed-is-good, pragmatist with the unshakable belief that debt is "the promise to pay from which everything flows").
Equally easy to spot are counterparts to characters from the Bard's work . The pivotal Merkin-cum-Milken character has a close kinship with Henry Bolinbroke, the future King Henry IV in Richard II. Representing that play's titular king there's Junk's doomed and most emotionally engaging character, Thomas Everson Junior (Rick Holmes). He's the third generation head of a family whose steel manufacturing company. This commercial kingdom and the jobs it creates is under siege from Merkin and his cohorts.
Besides the point-counterpoint between Akhtar's real life inspired would-be kings and Shakespeare's Holinshed Chronicle inspired ones, Merkin also brings to mind the timeless Icarus myth. Like Icarus he determinedly soars to the sky on wings fashioned from air and greed, but flies too close to the sun to stay aloft.
Director Dough Hughes keeps the multi-faceted plot developments moving at Presto tempo. John Lee Beatty's high tech double tiered unit set, Ben Stanton's propulsive lighting, 59 Production's projections and Catherine Zuber's costumes provide the actors with pitch perfect support needed to define even the characters who are more sketched out than fully developed
Thanks to the smart script and staging, the result is top to bottom excellence for the small as well as major role players. Chief members on Merkin's team are corporate raider Israel Peterman (Matthew Rauch) and his savvy Lawyer Raul Rivera (Matthew Salvidar). But the standout is Joey Slotnik as the nebbishy "forced" investor who ends up betraying him (shades of Ivan Boesky). The strongest impression for the scenes focusing on the big Pennysylvania steel company's fight for survival is made by Henry Stram as banker and adviser Maximilien Cizik.
Given several references to the famous white whale of Moby Dick there's also a faction gung ho to capture Merkin and company (e.g. Charlie Semine's U S. Attorney Guiseppe Addesso and Phillip James Brannon as fraud investigator Kevin Walsh). However, the funniest and most entertaining scenes come from another group that includes Michael Siberry as an older billionaire financier and Teresa Avia Lim, our scene setting muckraking journalist Judy Chen—. would you surprised to see her also succumbing to the great God Money?
If there's a downside to this tapestry of rich, powerful people at war with each other, it's that all the explanatory dialogue about their insider wheeling and dealing is not going to make most viewers understand what they're talking about any better. But then, that's not Mr. Akhtar's aim. It's because all this talk is so much gobbledygook that everyone, poor as well as rich, gets smart talked into becomng part of a world in which Money is indeed God —a God who sees no need to distribute wealth fairly.
Sure, the real Milken, like Junk's Robert Merkin, gets caught. But if you check out what he's up to these days you'll find that his net worth as of last year was $2.5 billion. What's more, our currently active wheeler dealers are more powerful than ever, and in fact part of a government where Money is still the God favoring the flim-flam of corporations and billionaires.
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Junk by Ayad Akhtar
Directed by Doug Hughes
, Cast: Ito Aghayere (Jaqueline Blount), Phillip James Brannon (Kevin Welch), Tony Carlin (Corrigan Wiley, Union Rep), Caroline Hewitt (Charlene Stewart), Rick Holmes (Thomas Everson Jr.), Ted Koch (MarK O'Hare, Counsel), Teresa Avia Lim (Judy Chen), Nate Miller (Waiter), Steven Pasquale (Robert Merkin), Ethan Phillips (Lawyer), Matthew Rauch (Israel Peterman), Matthew Saldivar (Raul Rivera), Charlie Semine (Giuseppe Adesso), Michael Siberry (Leo Tressler), Miriam Silverman (Amy Merkin), Joey Slotnick (Boris Pronsky), Henry Stram (Maximilien Cizik);Jenelle Chu, Demosthenes Chrysan, Demosthenes Chrysan, Ian Lassiter,Adam Ludwig, Sean McIntyre,Stephanie Umoh (Ensemble).
Sets by John Lee Beatty
Costumes by Catherine Zuber
Lighting by Ben Stanton
Original music and sound by Mark Bennett
Projections by 59 Productions
Stage Manager: Charles Means
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with 1 Intermission Vivian Beaumont Theater 150 West 65th Street From 10/05/17; opening 11/02/17; closing 1/07/17 Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at November 5th press matinee
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