The highly anticipated new play by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Ayad Akhtar entitled “JUNK” – referring to the bonds sold in the 1980s by Machiavellian inside traders – does tend to sacrifice intrigue for the sake of entertainment. The plot centers around the fictional junk bond king Robert Merkin (played with unscrupulous charisma by Steven Pasquale), as he manipulates his followers, in the same vein as a religious cult leader, to invest in companies prior to a radical takeover, resulting in high profits from insider trading. The script offers no new insight into a subject matter that has already been played out in books, movies and on major broadcast news. The driving action focuses on the capture of the big whale, Moby Dick (Mr. Merkin’s code name), but this device has been around since the game of Chess, manipulating a pawn to get to the king. This is where the predictability diminishes the suspense. Many of the subplots that adorn the central theme seem more acute, offering inquisitive characters and igniting sparks of sexism, racism, and bigotry in a rather lackluster storyline.
With a cast numbering twenty-three it is problematic that there is not one persona that the audience can love or for that matter abhor, which hints at the lack of depth afforded the characters by Mr. Akhtar. Teresa Avia Lim is a breath of fresh air as the reporter Judy Chen (driven with ambition and confidence) who has a sexual tryst with Leo Tresler (infused with crusty bravura of a good old boy by Michael Siberry). Rick Holmes gives an adequate portrayal of Thomas Everson, Jr. but lacks a sincere emotional investment needed to produce an ounce of empathy from the audience. The remaining cast are all competent and do their best to transcend the material.
Director Doug Hughes moves the action along at rapid pace to match the nature of the activities of radical takeovers, inside trading and federal investigation. The sleek abstract two-story set by John Lee Beatty, complimented by the precise and severe corporate lighting of Ben Stanton, outshines the product as it morphs from scene to scene to frame the players and create an underlying atmosphere to compliment the activity at hand. Although the themes of greed, power, deception, and chicanery are relevant to the present socio-economic and political landscape the content seems safe and tame compared to a nightly news broadcast. To those who lived through the financial debacle of the eighties the production may seem somewhat nostalgic. To others it will translate as an interesting and fast paced chronicle that is presented in a very impressive package.
The cast of “JUNK” features 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.
“JUNK” has sets by John Lee Beatty, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Ben Stanton, original music and sound by Mark Bennett, and projections by 59 Productions. Production photos by T. Charles Erikson.
“JUNK” runs at the Vivian Beaumont in Lincoln Center Theater (150 West 65th Street) through Sunday January 17, 2018 on the following schedule: Tuesday (7:00 p.m.), Wednesday (2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.), Thursday (7:00 p.m.), Friday (8:00 p.m.), Saturday (2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.,), and Sunday (3:00 p.m.). For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.lct.org/shows/junk/. Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.
Photo: Steven Pasquale as Robert Merkin in “JUNK.” Credit: T. Charles Erikson.