‘JUNK’: Matthew Rauch & Steven Pasquale. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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JUNK
By Ayad Akhtar
Directed by Doug Hughes
Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont
50 Lincoln Center Plaza
212-362-7200, www.lct.org

 

 

By Scott Harrah

The maxim “truth is stranger than fiction” certainly applies to fact-based dramas chronicling the greed, glory and guile of the financial world like The Big Short and The Wolf of Wall Street and the British stage bio-drama Enron. Junk, playwright Ayad Akhtar’s often riveting, unusual follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced, is a fictionalized composite of such real-life Wall Street devils as Michael Millken and Ivan Boesky. It has all the elements of a bona fide blockbuster about the go-go 1980s, complete with high-tech sets by John Lee Beatty.

Steven Pasquale plays Robert Merkin (loosely based on Michael Millken), the mastermind behind a Los Angeles-based investment firm that specializes in hostile takeovers circa 1985. Mr. Merkin gets a lot of media attention for claiming that debt payments can be somehow transformed into big bucks. Much of the story centers on Merkin’s company working on a Pennsylvania company, Everson Steel, a family business run by CEO Thomas Everson, Jr. (Rick Holmes).

A cast of unsavory characters add intrigue to the fast-paced but all-too-familiar action, from corporate shark Israel Peterman (Matthew Rauch) to investors Leo Tesler (Michael Siberry) and Murry Lefkowitz (Ethan Phillips), Jacqueline Blount (Ito Aghayere) as a mole planted at Everson Steel, ruthless young journalist Judy Chen (Teresa Avia Lim), and Joey Slotnick as Boris Pronsky, an arbitrageur who profits from manipulating price inefficiencies in financial markets. As confusing as corporate finance can be to the layperson, Mr. Akhtar makes everything unfold seamlessly as if it were a fun escapist Hollywood movie.

John Lee Beatty’s clever sets (featuring flashing numbers and lit-up compartments on stage that may remind some of TV’s “Hollywood Squares”) move the story around brilliantly from Los Angeles to New York to Allegheny, Pennsylvania.

Most of the cast of 23 each give solid performances, but Junk is a far cry from Disgraced,  Mr. Akhtar’s play about Islamophobia and a dinner party gone horribly wrong. That show was the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama, with an acclaimed Broadway run in 2014. Director Doug Hughes deserves credit for keeping Junk moving at a wonderfully fluid pace, but with so many characters and subplots, the story might have been more focused and powerful with minor trimming of the narrative fat.

As Robert Merkin, Steven Pasquale lacks the sense of Machiavellian menace necessary to truly make the character effective, and this is unfortunate since the whole play is basically his story. Junk is, without question, an entertaining epic about the excesses of the 1980s but it curiously has nothing new or insightful to say about an era when junk bonds and insider trading wreaked havoc in America.

 

 

Edited by Scott Harrah
Published November 6, 2017
Reviewed at November 5, 2017 press performance.

 

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‘JUNK’: Teresa Avia Lim & Michael Siberry. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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‘JUNK’: Steven Pasquale. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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‘JUNK’: Ito Aghayere & Matthew Saldivar. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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‘JUNK’: Henry Stram (standing) & Rick Holmes (seated). Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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‘JUNK’: The company. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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