Saturday, November 25, 2017

Review of "Junk"

Playwright Ayad Akhtar is one of the most compelling dramatists writing for the stage today.  His Disgraced won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize.  During the past few years, his work has been performed at Connecticut regional theaters, winning numerous awards including the 2016 Best Play from the Connecticut Critics Circle for The Invisible Hand.  His new play, Junk, continues his exploration of the intersection of human nature, religion, politics, morality, and finance, but on a much grander scale.  While in his previous works there were just a handful of actors, in Junk the cast has over 20 speaking parts.  It is more of an English state-of-the-nation play, which playwright and author Jeffrey Sweet describes as a play that tackles the “big political picture.”

The focus of Junk is the rough and tumble times, beginning in the early 1980’s, of Wall Street’s infatuation with high-yield bonds, known as junk bonds.  Robert Merkin is a financier who has come up with the idea of how a company can take over another through the issuance of junk bonds.  In his words, debt is an asset.  His target is Everson Steel and United and his conduit is the company run by an up-and-coming businessman named Israel Peterson.  The machinations portrayed in the production can be riveting at times as strategies and intrigues take shape.  A host of players—on both sides of the battle for Everson’s survival--become involved in the gambit as does the F.B.I. who begin investigating Merkin for securities fraud and other illegal activities.  In the end, the resolution is equal parts satisfying and bittersweet.

Akhtar states in an author’s note that the play is “a fictionalized account suggested by events in the historical public record.”  This makes the work both captivating and, at least for the non-Wall Street professionals in the audience, somewhat off-putting as greed and arrogance take center stage.  But this is not a simple story.  The playwright succeeds in placing the narrative in a much larger historical context that has produced profound and lasting changes in society.  He has skillfully woven into the drama many connecting parts, alternating allegiances, and hypnotizing twists and turns.  Sometimes the action and language on stage is hard to follow as the vocabulary and business jargon will be unfamiliar to most individuals.  However, Junk is anything but dry and tedious.  The gaps in understanding are greatly overshadowed by the sheer exhilaration of the production.

The sizeable cast, led by Steven Pasquale as Robert Merkin, is superb.  Pasquale, known more for his musical theater roles, is a fervent zealot, almost evangelical in his pursuit of rewriting the take over textbook.  The actor is at times charismatic, frightening and unforgiving as he stalks his corporate prey.  Other notable members of the Lincoln Center troupe are Matthew Rauch as the brash and boastful Israel Peterman; Joey Slotnik as the sleazy, not-to-be-trusted Boris Pronsky; Rick Holmes as Thomas Everson, Jr., the upright, dedicated president of the doomed Everson Steel; and Michael Siberry as Leo Tresler, an old-school financier wavering between the new reality and conventional traditions.

Director Doug Hughes has the numerous scenes moving at a crackling pace, paralleling the swift maneuverings of the big deal.  He brings forth both a vigor and forcefulness to the production, with characters flitting in and out of the turmoil in rapid succession, as well as providing intervals for explanatory flourishes.  The director deftly builds a palpable tension as the climax of the show nears its conclusion.  Hughes also elicits exacting portrayals by the cast, which gives the overall production an epic quality.

Scenic Designer John Lee Beatty has created a sleek two-tiered set that, along with Mark Benett’s Original Music and Sound Design and Ben Stanton’s Lighting, pulsates with intensity while at the same time aptly compartmentalizes the action into highly charged vignettes.

Junk, an engrossing and gripping drama, playing at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater.

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