Have there ever been as many suits and ties on a stage as there are in the new play by Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar at Lincoln Center?
The protagonist of Junk is one Robert Merkin (Steven Pasquale), whose name alone is reminiscent of the real-life person he represents, Michael Robert Milken, the “Junk Bond King” of the mid 1980’s, who went to jail in 1990, and whose practices led to the world market crash a decade or so ago. “This is a story of kings, or what passes for kings these days,” says Forbes reporter Judy Chen (Teresa Avia Lim), in the play’s opening lines. “….enthroned in sky-high castles and embroiled in battles over, what else? Money.”
There is something to be said about the well-delineated characters–or cast members–in Junk, but that ‘something’ has more to do with the performances and with Doug Hughes’ direction than it does with the writing. As written by Akhtar, Junk is a mess and a shambles–as confusing as the recent history it means to recall. One has all one can do to follow the story, which seems to evaporate even as it unfolds. The jargon itself is hard to keep track of, with “junk” referred to as “crazy paper” at various points, and a “Deep Throat” type of sub-plot involving “Ahab” and “the White Whale,” long before we find out who they are.
With rapidly flashing algorithms projected on the rear wall of an otherwise simple, boxed set, designed by John Lee Beatty, (the more effective lighting is by Ben Stanton), the story focuses on the “unwelcome attention” on, and take-over of, Everson Steel Mills in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. As one of the few “good” guys in the play, Leo Tresler (an angry and fierce Michael Siberry) says early on, Merkin “raises money by selling debt against a company’s assets,” adding that Merkin and his “cronies” are nothing but racketeers. Under the circumstances, it does no good when Everson himself (Rick Holmes) says, “My company is not for sale.”
It’s actually Merkin’s no-nonsense wife Amy (Miriam Silverman) who brings Everson to her husband’s attention in the first place, as their bed flies out from the rear of the stage, while she’s perched on it, breast-feeding their infant and reading over some papers. (It’s Amy who eventually tells her husband: “You’re not bending the rules. You’re breaking the law.”) Though the set often consists of nothing more than a lone office-chair, other furniture flies out for certain scenes with a velocity that makes the two-and-a-half-hour play zoom by. There are also lots of flashing neon lights, mirrors, and pounding sounds, as the action plays out on two levels in five blocked boxes.
And then there’s that humongous cast, which, in addition to the aforementioned, includes Caroline Hewitt as Merkin’s pert secretary Charlene–not to specify what roles they play: Matthew Rauch, Matthew Saldivar, Ethan Phillips, Ito Aghayere, Joey Slotnick, Ted Koch, Nate Miller, Phillip James Brannon, Nate Miller, Charlie Semine, Tony Carlin, and still six more “Ensemble” players. It almost seems like there are as many people on stage as there were lives ruined by Milken’s junk-bond shenanigans–though of course, that’s not possible.
Junk (through January 7, 2018)
Lincoln Center Theater
Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-440-8539 or visit http://www.lct.org
Running time: two and a half hours including one intermission
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