For all the excitement about the Midwest premiere of playwright Ayad Akhtar’s expansive look at the world of junk bonds and financial voodoo it comes to an end leaving a surprising absence of emotional investment.
Akhtar is the Brookfield native and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright who has a massive, and well-deserved, reputation for creating penetrating characters trapped in the world around them.
“Junk” is his sweeping (20 actors) look at the Michael Milken, architect of the high-yield junk bond legerdemain of the 1980’s. It’s Mr. Akhtar’s take on the high flying world of hyper-creative debt accumulation as a way to build wealth.
It was all Go-Go-Go back then and that speed and recklessness may be a little problematic with this production under the direction of Artistic Director Mark Clements.
The story unfolds so fast that there is rarely any time to get to know these characters who end up being mere cutouts of incredibly complex individuals with competing motives and conflicting goals.
The two-hour, intermission free evening unfolds in 48 (by one count) separate scenes, each flowing into the next after a brief blackout, some minor scenic adjustments and new brilliant rear projections (Jared Mezzocchi) on the blocky and brutal set (Todd Edward Ivins).
We meet all the players, from the Milken-inspired Robert Merkin (Gregory Linington) to the specific target of his takeover machination, steel company owner Thomas Everson, Jr. (James Ridge). Also strewn about this massive onslaught of people nobody could love, are all the Iago’s, Desdemona’s and other Shakespearean archetypes you can find in the canon.
The story centers on the efforts of Mr. Merkin to take over a third-generation steel company owned by Mr. Everson. One thing Mr. Akhtar does so very well is to define the sides in this battle.
On one side, of course, is Mr. Merkin and his conspirators, some loyal, some uncertain and some beleaguered.
Then you have the good-hearted financial lion (Brian Mani) who can’t stand what’s happening to the world of high finance where he has long reigned supreme as the white shoes boss of the world. Mr. Mani, a perfect example of the high level of casting and acting in this show, is full of bluster, but manages to be one of the few characters who seem to have more than one dimension. He gives some wonderful shading to the lurid prejudice Mr. Akhtar has given him.
Mr. Ridge heads the third faction here, the target of the takeover. He’s joined by his loyal attorney Matt Daniels and his financial advisor, N’Jameh Camara, who proves to be a mole for for the forces of evil.
We also have the United States Attorney Giuseppi Addesso (Dominic Comperatore) who is drawn from Rudy Giuliani who prosecuted Mr. Milken.
Like any great Shakespeare play this cast of characters is full of good guys, bad guys, traitors, sexual liaison and showdowns at dawn. The difference between Shakespeare and Mr. Akhtar’s play is that Shakespeare gives us something to care about.
When you have a subject as complicated as financial machination in 1985 it seems that it might be best to give the audience time to catch its breath after each new development or reveal.
Tthe frenetic structure of the play and the pace doesn’t give you time to catch up and figure out who is doing what to who and how they are doing it and who is pulling whose strings.
At one point Mr. Linington says that trying to explain the world of high finance to the general public just makes people’s eyes glaze over.
Production credits: Director, Mark Clements; Scenic Designer, Todd Edward Ivins; Costume Designer, Theresa Ham; Lighting Designer, Thom Weaver; Original Music and Sound Designer, Lindsay Jones; Projection Designer, Jared Mezzocchi; Production Dramaturg, Deanie Vallone; Voice & Text Coach, Clare Arena Haden; Casting Director, Frank Honts; Stage Manager, Laura F. Wendt; Production Photographer, Michael Brosilow.