BWW Review: JUNK at Arena Stage
We often ask ourselves how we got where we are. Junk, by the award-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar, attempts to answer that question, at least in one area, by providing insight to the changes in finance on Wall Street in the 1980s.
The play follows Robert Merkin, a young rising star who's changing the game on Wall Street and setting his sights on his largest takeover yet. Merkin is certain he's creating a better country, but, despite the "true believer" mentality embraced by Merkin, his business-minded wife, and his colleagues, Merkin's methods raise eyebrows on Wall Street and within the media, and soon catch the attention of the US Attorney's office.
The show is incredibly well-written (as one would expect from a playwright whose work had previously won a Pulitzer Prize). It never shies away from financial jargon, but it also never talks over or down to the audience. The show is an accessible deep-dive into the world of finance, and it also manages to carefully balance that with a very human, emotional element. One of the most striking aspects of the show is that there are no clear good or bad characters - every character simultaneously earns the support, sympathy, distrust, and disdain of the audience in turn, and they're all incredibly complex. Merkin, for example, is hubristic and taking actions that are questionable at best, but he's also empathetic of the experiences of those around him and considers how the average American is impacted by the biased systems he sees. His main rival, Tom Everson Jr., is focused on the community his company has supported for generations and actively works to keep his company's floundering divisions afloat to keep his workers employed, but he's also incredibly insecure about his ability to live up to his family's legacy and regularly makes racist and anti-Semitic comments. Even the Attorney General manages to be both committed to the law while seeking an edge for his political aspirations. Each time the audience starts to support a character, the character's actions disappoint them; each time the audience is ready to turn on a character, the audience is given a reason to sympathize.
Junk opened on Broadway in 2017, where it was nominated for two Tony awards and has earned a formidable reputation. Arena Stage's production marks the Washington, DC area premiere of the critically acclaimed play, and, happily, Arena's production is more than up to the task of living up to the show's reputation.
Playing such balanced, complex characters without ever crossing too far in any direction requires incredible skill; the show's large cast can very easily make or break this production. And yet, every member of Arena's cast rises to the task. Thomas Keegan deserves tremendous praise for his charismatic Robert Merkin; one particular monologue nearly convinces the audience to agree with his every action, even though, intellectually, we know his conclusions are doomed to lead us on a terrible spiral. Edward Gero's Thomas Everson Jr. is Merkin's perfect foil; he lacks the charisma but has the standing and passion to go toe-to-toe with the financier. Lise Bruneau, as Maximilien Cizik, and and Kashayna Johnson, as Jacqueline Blount, pair perfectly as Everson's long-suffering team, playing both the old supportive guard (Max) and the new generation with an eye on the long-term (Jacqueline). Merkin's team consists of the loyal but cautious Raúl Rivera (a polished and charming Perry Young), eager upstart Israel Peterman (passionately portrayed by Jonathan David Martin), his business shark wife Amy (Shanara Gabrielle's admirably no-nonsense performance is fabulous), and his assistant Charlene (Amanda Forstrom's vignettes provide a nice comedic element to the production). David Andrew Macdonald's Leo Tresler is a great counter to Merkin, stubbornly favoring the old ways to the new, and his chemistry with each character, particularly Nancy Sun's Judy Chen, (who also serves as the show's quasi-narrator) is quite fun to watch. Sun's portrayal of Chen's journey from skeptical bystander to active participant in the financial antics is subtle and skillfully pulls the audience along for her slide; her story, though really a side plot, is one of the more interesting ones amidst a host of interesting tales. Merkin's less-savory crew consists of the constantly on-edge Boris Pronsky (played as just the right amount of sketchiness by Elan Zafir), the slightly more confident Mark O'Hare (Michael Glenn), and the anxious Devon Atkins (Dylan Jackson), who has already been caught and is desperately trying to work with JaBen Early's by-the-book Kevin Walsh. Walsh's boss, Attorney General Giuseppe Addesso is given just the right amount of political sleaze by Nicholas Baroudi. The cast is rounded out by Michael Russotto as the long-suffering and anxious Murray Lefkowitz, and Elliott Bales, who carries two minor roles in addition to his position as Fight Captain.
The large, colorful cast, could easily become overwhelming, but Director Jackie Maxwell easily keeps them all on task with the help of Stage Manager Christi B. Spann and Assistant Stage Manager Rachael Danielle Albert. Misha Kachman's minimalist and versatile set design is perfectly suited for the show, and provides the ideal canvas to balance the large cast. Judith Bowden's costumes set the era perfectly, though it did appear at one point that Amy's suit pieces were slightly mismatched, which was out-of-character (it may have been the lighting, though Jason Lyons' designs were generally spot-on - pun not intended - with the exception of one too-bright spot that reflected off the shiny white table top). Darron L. West's sound design and Brian Burchett's sound and video supervision were also great; I particularly enjoyed the touch of money-themed songs that played after the show's close, which carried over the tone as the audience departed.
Overall, Arena Stage's production of Junk is a solid, enjoyable production, and well worth taking the time to see, no matter your financial status.
Junk is playing at Arena Stage through May 5th. Tickets and information on the show's post-performance conversations can be found on Arena's website. CN: slurs, loud noises, flashing lights, and suicide.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography.