BWW Review: Filling Pockets…At Any Cost. A Review of Street Corner Arts' JUNK
"This is a story of kings." The opening line of playwright Ayad Akhtar's JUNK gives the audience an epic summary of what they're about to experience. Kings not determined by the biggest crown or most expansive army, but by the fullest pockets. Robert Merkin, played by Carlo Lorenzo Garcia, is one such king, though unconventional in that the lead character of Akhtar's longest work sees debt as an asset. Robert sits proudly on the cover Time Magazine, and he's ready to capitalize on his role as "America's Alchemist". As Robert, performer Garcia pulls off all the teeth sucking, furtive gesticulating, and slick talking of a classic 1980's Wall Street yuppie.
Akhtar was already known as the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Disgraced" when JUNK premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in July 26, 2016. It opened on Broadway in November 2, 2017, scoring solid reviews and 2 Tony Nominations for Best Play and Best Lighting Design in a Play before closing in January 7, 2018.
JUNK begins as Robert and resident lawyer Raul Rivera, played by Rommel Sulit, educate colleague Israel Peterman, played by Zac Carr, on the importance of using triggering, hand-picked words in meetings. Robert explicitly suggests words mean everything; they elicit a desired reaction and influence the person at the other end of the boardroom. Robert and Israel ultimately use these words in influencing the victim of their massive corporate takeover.
Like Robert, Akhtar chooses words precisely and intentionally. JUNK is built on its immediately complex and fast paced dialogue, with no need for fancy sets or costumes to cover for potentially anemic discourse. JUNK forces the audience to lean in and listen. Those unfamiliar with financial jargon may feel lost at times in the first act, but the foundational plot emerges quickly enough. Robert Merkin's main goal is a corporate takeover of Everson Steel, a generational Pennsylvania steel giant run by Thomas Everson Jr. and his bespectacled financial advisor Maximilien Cizik, held aloft with wiry yet prudent energy by performer Dave Yakubik. Thomas Everson Jr., played by Joe Penrod, holds the show's emotional center in his deeply rooted attachment to the family business.
Thomas stands out in the world of shrewd businesspeople who seize on opportunities to fill their pockets or further their careers at any cost. Mr. Penrod brings the audience along his character journey from confident businessman to feeling like a desperate young upstart trying to make his father proud and protect his business from the unscrupulous Merkin pressure.
The entire cast wonderfully portray their characters' dismissive, c'est la vie attitudes toward destructive consequences their actions cause. For example, wickedly intelligent mole Jackie Blount, played by Sweet Van Loan, hardly bats an eyelash as she slowly assists with Everson Steel's undoing from the inside. The only character who expresses concern in law-breaking is Robert's wife and co-financial wizard Amy Merkin, played by Molly Fonseca. Oh and the FBI agents investigating Robert's participation in nefarious side dealings, played by Jason Graf and Lamont Lofton.
Director Benjamin Summers sets the ambiance of the excess and commercialism intrinsic to the 80's with his pre-show choices. 80s tunes such as Bryan Ferry's Slave to Love and Heart's Never blare over commercials for hair dye and McDonald's on screens placed on all sides of the circular stage. This display is then contradicted by sparse sets and minimal props reflecting the emptiness many of the characters face when all is said and done. Just one large desk-moved by the performers during sharp and well-rehearsed scene changes-serves as a boardroom table, bench, and bed. Get ready folks, it's a long one, clocking in at approximately 2 and a half hours. It's not that the scenes drag, there are just a lot of them.
JUNK earns its applause despite this. Crisp performances and biting dialogue result in a well executed show that refuses to slow down, and the audience leaves windblown but grinning. Cabaret's Master of Ceremonies got it right when he exclaimed, "Money makes the world go round." This isn't a good thing, but it's true- and in the world of JUNK it's the motivation propelling the characters forward. Street Corner Arts' JUNK understands this, yet never forgets the humans behind the dollar signs.
Photo Credit: Benjamin Summers
February 15 - March 09, 2019 at 8:00 PM
1510 Toomey Road
Austin, TX, 78704
TICKETS / $25 General Admission; $20 Seniors, Educators, Students (with ID)
INFO: Tickets on sale now at www.streetcornerarts.org or call (512) 539-8638d
Photo Credit: Gabriel Alba Photography