Review Roundup: Critics Weigh In on Ayad Akhtar's JUNK- All the Reviews!

By: Nov. 02, 2017
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Lincoln Center Theater presents Junk, a new play by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Doug Hughes, opening tonight, November 2, at the Vivian Beaumont Theater (150 West 65 Street).

It's 1985. Robert Merkin (Pasquale), the resident genius of the upstart investment firm Sacker Lowell, has just landed on the cover of Time Magazine. Hailed as "America's Alchemist," his proclamation that "debt is an asset" has propelled him to dizzying heights. Zealously promoting his belief in the near-sacred infallibility of markets, he is trying to re-shape the world.

Junk stars Ito Aghayere, Phillip James Brannon, Tony Carlin, Demosthenes Chrysan, Jenelle Chu, Caroline Hewitt, Rick Holmes, Ted Koch, Ian Lassiter, Teresa Avia Lim, Adam Ludwig, Sean McIntyre, Nate Miller, Steven Pasquale, Ethan Phillips, Matthew Rauch, Matthew Saldivar, Charlie Semine, Michael Siberry, Miriam Silverman, Joey Slotnick, Henry Stram and Stephanie Umoh.

Let's see what the critics had to say!

Ben Brantley, The New York Times: And while Mr. Akhtar may have rejected many of the outer trappings of the Wall Street potboiler, he still hews to many of its clichés. That includes a woman being brought to org*sm by the idea of her decrepit lover's financial power, and the antihero Merkin solemnly lying to his wife (Miriam Silverman) in the manner of Michael Corleone. And while the script offers some amusing lessons in shading language with hopeful sounding words to pitch a deal, Mr. Akhtar's dialogue lacks its usual original snap. "When did money become the thing - the only thing?" Ms. Lim's character asks in the opening monologue. It's an ever-intriguing question, but you've heard it before. And for all his intelligence and focus, Mr. Akhtar seldom bucks the formula to provide answers.

Michael Dale, BroadwayWorld: Like a Shakespearean history play set during wartime, Junk is loaded with peripheral characters who propel the story forward.Matthew Saldivar is especially effective as Merkin's steely colleague who knows how to get his way. Joey Slotnick also scores as the powerful investor whose disheveled appearance and demeaner contrast with his reputation as The Prince of Darkness.

Matt Windman, amNY: "Junk" marks a critical departure point for Akhtar, a Pakistani-American writer whose prior dramas involved Pakistani-Americans (the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Disgraced," "The Who & The What") and an American kidnapped by a Pakistani terrorist ("The Invisible Hand"). Even while many of the characters are underdeveloped, the commentary on anti-Semitism feels tacked on and the industry lingo can throw off a layperson, "Junk" is engrossing from start to finish and Doug Hughes' sleek, high-powered and fluid production (staged around a two-story set of empty squares and shining surfaces) never lags in momentum.

Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune: Paradoxically, "Junk" actually represents something of a power grab by Akhtar, the ambitious young author of "Disgraced" and other taut, oft-domestic, one-act dramas, for a more robust and defining place in the discourse of the American theater. Especially as produced here, "Junk" is an epic, strutting, restless, sexually charged, slam-bang-wham piece of work, something akin to the huge socio-political dramas by the likes of David Hare, produced for years at the National Theatre in London but far less common on this, less reflective side of the Atlantic. There's a gaping hole, and Akhtar jumps in feet first with his fish-eye lens. Wall Street peddlers will sense there's a kindred spirit building this house of cards, even as Akhtar takes them down.

Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal: Ayad Akhtar's "Junk" is a parable of capitalism and its discontents whose villain-in-chief is a junk-bond salesman named, none too discreetly, "Robert Merkin" (Steven Pasquale). It's performed at breakneck speed by a budget-busting cast of 23 actors, an ensemble so huge that it would have taken a Tom Stoppard-or a Shakespeare-to portray the individual characters as anything other than stick figures. Mr. Akhtar is talented, but not that talented.

Adam Feldman, Time Out New York: Money talks, but in Ayad Akhtar's trenchant Junk, people do plenty of talking for it. The playwright has a lot of explaining to do: His subject is the carnivore capitalism of 1980s Wall Street, and he spends much of the play briefing the audience on hostile takeovers and insider trading. But the details don't feel sweaty. Staged by Doug Hughes for Lincoln Center Theater, whose taste for quasidocumentary epics was also evinced in last season's Oslo, Junk melds a breadth of genres-crime story, tragedy, issue play, cautionary tale-into a fast-moving, broad-ranging social thriller.

Barbara Schuler, Newsday: Doug Hughes' staging moves briskly on a minimalist set by John Lee Beatty, where we go from boardroom to bedroom meeting some of the collateral damage: Merkin's wife, Amy (Miriam Silverman), a financial whiz herself; the hapless investor Murray Lefkowitz (Ethan Phillips), who wants to back out but instead throws in another few million; and Thomas Everson Jr. (Rick Holmes), the CEO of the steel company Merkin's trying to take over. There's an underlying suggestion of religious bigotry, as Everson rails about a character named Israel or any of "his people" having a stake in the family company.

Jeremy Gerard, Deadline: So it's a clever deception, this wall of numbers created by designer John Lee Beatty, who is much better known for sets that look like places where people actually live. The people who live in the world of Ayad Akhtar's Junk, which,opened tonight at Lincoln CenterTheater, have heads full of numbers, closets hung with hand-tailored suits and barrels, barges, of cash. They live in architected apartments that look like high-end hotel suites and guzzle Ch. Petrus like so much soda pop. Their children roll through parks in tank-like perambulators pushed by nannies with back-up nannies. Not that I'm envious.

Joe Dziemianowicz, The Daily News: It makes for a Broadway play that's accessible, but not illuminating or surprising. Once those guys with the tape machines show up, it's clear where we're headed. Too bad, considering that Akhtar's 2013 Pulitzer-winning "Disgraced," about racial and religious divides, packed a wallop even with its flaws. "Junk," at the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center, is polished but lacks a satisfying punch. A sly little jab at the end isn't the same thing.

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: Directed by Doug Hughes with a solid cast of 23 and a tireless foot on the accelerator, this is the kind of large-canvas, intelligent drama that Lincoln Center Theater does impeccably, notably so last season with Oslo. The difference, however, is that J.T. Rogers' Tony-winning play had richly individualized characters with incisively drawn cultural distinctions to flesh out the dense detail of its political history lesson. Junk, by contrast, is populated with aggressive arbitrageurs, inside traders and number-crunching sharks, all swimming more or less in the same pool.

Christian Lewis, Huffington Post: Ayad Akhtar, Puiltzer Prize-winning playwright of "Disgraced," has a new drama, "Junk," directed by Doug Hughes at the Vivan Beaumont at Lincoln Center. Sadly, this new play cannot compare to his previous hit, which tackled race and religion with such incredible nuance. In "Junk," Akhtar explores the financial world of the 1980s, including an aggressive tackover, insider trading, stock manipulation, million dollar investment portfolios, and of course, controversial junk bonds.

Tim Teeman, The Daily Beast: From the outset, Junk by Ayad Akhtar feels too familiar to be original-it is yet another play about greedy and venal Wall Street types behaving greedily and venally in the mid-1980s when Junk is set. Characters are variously housed in two rows of Hollywood Squares-like cells, or stalk to the front of a bare, handsomely lit stage-a dark parody of a game show, perhaps-to assail us with wry observations about capitalism. They also inform us, in their brutal, dense financial argot, about what they are about to do to buy, sell, or destroy. Each character feels familiar, each set-up feels familiar, the butch tone and swagger feels familiar. If you've seen Wall Street, or The Wolf of Wall Street, or Enron, or Margin Call, or Arbitrage, you've seen most if not all of the vital elements of Junk.

Alexis Soloski, The Guardian: Akhtar favors classical structures and this mention of kings prepares us for classical tragedy with a Brooks Brothers wardrobe. Here's Merkin, a mostly good "king" who oversteps and suffers the consequences. But with its clipped scenes and brisk, brash dialogue, Junk feels poised, and not always easily, between moral tragedy and popcorn thriller. And it can't quite make up its mind about the man at its center, a stance that seems intellectually honest and dramatically wimpy.

Sara Holdren, Vulture: Junk's driving tempo, cinematic smash-cuts, and clarity of underlying action undoubtedly hold our attention. Akhtar has said that he wants audiences "to have an emotional experience of this process of capital" - to get caught up in the thrust of each scene ("somebody's instructing somebody, somebody's stealing from somebody, somebody's betraying somebody else's confidence") even if phrases like "undisclosed equity stakes" sound a bit like Chinese. Director Doug Hughes understands that one of the things Akhtar is doing in Junk is riffing on the Shakespearean history play. He keeps the action rolling relentlessly forward on an effectively streamlined, compartmentalized set by John Lee Beatty that - not unlike an Elizabethan theater - allows for quick, imaginative shifts in time and space.

Isabella Biedenharn, Entertainment Weekly: Still, it's an enthralling production: John Lee Beatty's grid of a set is like an Excel spreadsheet come to life - and when those illuminated cubes are combined with Doug Hughes' direction, Ben Stanton's lighting, and Mark Bennett's sound, they can make a board meeting feel as dramatic as the Super Bowl. And despite each character's path seeming inevitable, their choices - or lack thereof - will stick with you long after the final bow.

Steven Suskin, Huffington Post: The cast includes a handful of sterling performances, led by Pasquale (of The Bridges of Madison County) who makes Merkin an antihero we can both root for and recoil from. Stram gives one of his typically excellent performances as the white-glove lawyer; Aghayere is especially strong as the low-level lawyer playing both sides; and Siberry, who has a long line of credits including a not-very-comfortable Captain von Trapp in the 1998 Sound of Music, is riveting as the malevolent and bigoted Tresler. Standing out among the many others are Chen, Saldivar, Slotnick, Brannon, and Ethan Phillips as an uncomfortable elderly investor. (Disgraced climaxed with a memorable, gasp-inducing moment; Akhtar gives us a gut punch here as well, in a scene between Pasquale and Phillips.)

Charles Isherwood, Broadway News: Directed by Doug Hughes at the dizzying pace of speed traders racking up dollars at full froth, and acted by an excellent cast, the play is supremely well-researched, insightful and smart. It is also, on the other hand, so conscientiously thorough in its analysis of its subject that it often feels dense to the point of stultifying. And its ample array of characters - as well as its many-threaded plot - result in a play with greater breadth than depth. As a many-chaptered primer on an ominous turning point in the American economy, it earns full marks. But emotionally, and to some extent dramatically, it's pretty much a washout.

Marilyn Stasio, Variety: "Junk" doesn't exactly illuminate the mysterious process whereby corporate marauders ruthlessly eviscerate and in due course take over companies that resist their takeover bids. What it does do, in this slickly directed production directed by Doug Hughes, is capture the electric energy that fueled these aggressive acquisitions, along with the intoxicating sense of power that blinded the raiders to all other principles and values.

Robert Hofler, The Wrap: Seeing it today, you have to roll up the nearest Playbill and scratch your head in wonderment at why the talented writer of "Disgraced" bothered with a subject that movies from "Margin Call" to "Wolf of Wall Street" to "The Big Short" have handled so much more effectively in recent years. Even a far weaker effort, like Oliver Stone's "Wall Street," had the advantage of a timely release date: December 1987.

Christopher Kelly, Much like this year's Tony-winning "Oslo," which previously occupied the Vivian Beaumont, "Junk" -- bracingly and briskly directed by Doug Hughes on a stylish, two-tiered set by John Lee Beatty -- employs an enormous cast (23 actors) in order to show you how an entire system operates. Among the players are various inside traders, federal investigators, lawyers, union workers, journalists and even a Rudy Giuliani stand-in, all trying to play the angles, and all of whom -- even the purported "good guys" -- are motivated by self-interest.

David Cote, Theater New Online: There are nearly two dozen characters running around the play, but none is particularly likeable or memorable. Mind you, that's not a deal-breaker; Junk is entertaining stuff, and design-wise, wisely eschews '80s kitsch, which could let us distance ourselves from its moral. Director Doug Hughes delivers a high-energy staging on John Lee Beatty's unit set - a glossy black box gridded out by pulsing strings of light. Pasquale makes for a blandly handsome sociopath and Siberry joyfully gobbles scenery as the good-old-boy financier. But there's little here you'd call revelatory.

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