BWW Review: JUNK Unpacks Power & Greed at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater
"When did money become the thing?" That's the central question unpacked in Ayad Akhtar's Junk, the latest work by the Brookfield, Wisconsin, native and Pulitzer Prize winner. In our capitalist society, money has clearly been the thing for ages, but this play direct from Broadway focuses on the junk bond era of Wall Street in the 1980s.
In brief, the plot focuses on the fate of Everson Steel - a family-owned business at risk of falling victim to financial sharks and junk bond traders. Tom Everson, the third-generation owner, is desperate to preserve the integrity of the company founded by his grandfather, despite the fact that numbers show that their Pennsylvania steel mill is steadily declining in value. Enter Bob Merkin, a slick, cutthroat investor, intent on using his pawn, Israel Peterman, to win the majority shares in the publicly-traded Everson and gut the company of its steel roots - slashing 1,500 jobs and laying waste to Tom's family legacy in the process.
That, in Merkin's mind, is the cost of progress. Out with the old, whatever the consequence, to make space for the new. Whether Merkin and his associates are vultures or visionaries, that's something to be debated after sitting edge-of-your-seat through the entirety of Akhtar's two-hour, no-intermission script. Those hours zoom by, packed with 20+ actors, dozens of tightly-written scenes, fluid transitions, and fast-paced dialogue requiring the utmost attention - especially if all of that Wall Street lingo isn't a regular part of your vocabulary.
Falling into the stock-market-illiterate camp myself, I was thrilled at the wealth of digestible information included in the Rep's play guide for Junk. It's a must read before you go. For instance: What is a junk bond anyway? Per the guide, bonds are debt in which loans that are given to a company, city, or government are backed by private investors, rather than a bank. Bonds are considered "junk" when they're especially high-risk. "They are more likely to default and end up worthless," the guide explains, "but if they work out, they have the possibility of very high payouts to investors."
It's cool that Junk will force some of us to do our homework and learn a bit more about the big money that drives our society. It's also cool that Akhtar is bringing to light a world not often shown on stage, perhaps attracting a different type of theater audience than usual. I imagine anyone who already speaks the Wall Street language, invests in the stock market, or finds capitalism a fascinating, even fearful beast, would be especially drawn to this play.
Even if some of the financial verbiage sails over some heads, Junk succeeds in entertaining on a purely theatrical level. Upon entering the Quadracci Powerhouse, a staggeringly tall, angled, grey backdrop looms ominously. That stony facade eventually gives way to a rush of color and motion, thanks to Projection Designer Jared Mezzocchi. Video and still imagery usher in new scenes - New York skylines, west coast palm trees, wood-paneled meeting rooms - and trigger new tones.
Working in tandem with Mezzocchi's projected imagery, clever lighting design by Thom Weaver and sound design by Lindsay Jones sets scenes and moods often without the use of tangible props. Clandestine dialogue held in a cavernous projected parking garage is given the echo treatment. Phone calls across country are simulated with single spotlights. Voices in a conference call between 12 board members sound appropriately distant. The effects are, to put it plainly, pretty neat.
In a cast as large at this one, it's equally neat and impressive to find fine performances throughout - actors with parts big and small pulling their weight and delivering Akhtar's cerebral script with unflustered ease. Special praise to the two men at the heart of Junk: Tom Everson and Robert Merkin, played by Gregory Linington and James Ridge, respectively. Ridge's desperate Everson is one of, if not the only, character in the lineup who earns any real sympathy. Linington's Merkin is indeed complex, but ultimately displays mainly, as Akhtar calls it, "fancy rationale for heroic greed."
In this financial faux-religion ruled by men and their outrageous egos, Akhtar adds a few strong women to the world of Junk. From Merkin's wife Amy (Rachel Sledd) to brilliant Harvard lawyer Jacqueline Blount (N'Jameh Camara) to investigative writer Judy Chen (Rebecca Hirota), each is smart, accomplished, savvy, and no-nonsense - though, unsurprisingly, flawed.
Akhtar has a knack for writing real people with real flaws, though given the sheer number of characters here, Junk features fewer truly developed individuals than his other works. What Akhtar does achieve, as usual, is taking a hard look at tough, often-uncomfortable issues in our society. Per a WUWM interview, Akhtar asserts that Junk is not pessimistic, just real. "It's bleak but it's realistic, unfortunately," he says. "If you're coming to the play and you're expecting something uplifting, just be prepared."
It's spot-on to suggest that any realistic portrayal of the wolves of Wall Street is bound to deflate some moral hope and crush, as Merkin calls it, our "Norman Rockwell sentimentality." But what Junk creates from the rubble of human greed is a conversation and examination of the pursuit of wealth and the sacrifices made to attain it.