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Junk

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?

Matthew Rauch and Steven Pasquale in a scene from Lincoln Center Theater’s production of “Junk” (Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)

David Kaufman

David Kaufman, Critic

Have there ever been as many suits and ties on a stage as there are in Junk, a new play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar at Lincoln Center? For that matter, have there ever been as many ideas about the world of economics and finance as there are in Junk? Well, in answer to the second question, yes, there were, with two previous plays on the same subject: Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money and Lucy Prebble’s Enron, both of which Junk comes to resemble in more ways than can be described in a brief review.

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.”

Joey Slotnick (center) and the company of Lincoln Center Theater’s production of “Junk” (Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)

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.”

Teresa Avia Lim and Michael Siberry in a scene from Lincoln Center Theater’s production of “Junk” (Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)

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

David Kaufman
About David Kaufman (46 Articles)
David Kaufman has been covering the theater in New York since 1981. A former theater critic for the New York Daily News, he was also a long-time contributor to the Nation, Vanity Fair, the Village Voice and the New York Times. He is also the author of the award-winning Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam, the best-selling Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, and his most recent biography, Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin.

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