The Review: Arena Stage’s Junk
This is a story of Kings, or so we are told within the first few minutes by the narrator of sorts, journalist Judy Chen, perfectly embodied by Nancy Sun. But not the kind of Kings that we would look up to with respect or bow down to. Definitely not noble ones or gracious ones, because Junk, the intelligent play by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and novelist, Ayad Akhtar (The Invisible Hand, LCT3’s The Who & The What) is delivering to us a different kind of type of King, one that is all about greed and power, a kind we are all to aware of as of late. With Akhtar playing it pretty close to the rise and fall of supertrader Michael Milken, the ‘Junk Bond King’ (of which I know so little about, by design) and emphasizing the ‘greed is good’ mantra of Wall Street in the 1980’s, this royal court at the gorgeous Arena Stage, while not failing in the slightest to serve up a heap of drama and intrigue, has discarded almost all the qualities of ‘doing good’ and ‘being honest’ for the darker shades of duplicity, lies, and betrayal. And for that, we are grateful theatre patrons, although not happy citizens of this current version of American politics.
The writing borders on Shakespearean in its decidedly Machiavellian discontent. It’s expansive in its dense storytelling, complex in its plot, and concise in its structure. The production is tight and streamlined in comparison to the Lincoln Center production I saw a few years ago, at least in terms of it stylistic design. It does seem to lack a certain upending of societal stereotypes that I expected from the man who brought us the complicated and curvy Disgraced. In that play, there were numerous shades of grey and nothing resembled their face value. Here, in Junk, the villains are plentiful but obvious and even the saviors compromised or destructive. Maybe you could say that in this tale of greed, we are given varying shades of black, with not a lot of differing tonal quality to look out at on the field of green.
The play, as directed by Jackie Maxwell (Soulpepper’s Innocence Lost) is crisp and hypnotically precise, sliding in and out with the speed of that determined secretary (I think back then that was still the accepted term). The whole cast of characters that surrounded Milken back in 1989 when he was indicted for racketeering and securities fraud, have been assembled on this theatre in the round with slight name adjustments but sticking fairly close to the raw and dark material. Instead of Milken, we have Robert Merkin, played by the magnetic Thomas Keegan (Olney’s The Invisible Hand) with a slightly too subtle cocky snideness that works well enough. As if we are living in a parallel universe, we have stand-ins for mayor-to-be Rudolph Giuliani, namely Giuseppe Addesso portrayed by the handsome and tight Nicholas Baroudi (PH’s Love and Human Remains, FX’s “Fosse/Verdon“), and the infamous stock trader Ivan Boesky in the form of Elan Zafir (Rep Stage’s Venus in Fur) transforming into the oily Boris Pronsky. The pack of royal hanger-ons is filled out with Sun’s Chen, trying to shine a bright and accusatory light on the corruption of Merkin’s Junk world, a wealthy old-school trader Leo Tresler, portrayed strongly by David Andrew MacDonald (Broadway’s Skylight) who finds Merkin so distasteful that he will stop at almost nothing to ruin his deal, a shady but smart lawyer, Raúl Rivera, played by Perry Young (TheatreWorks’ Once Upon A Rhyme), and a loud-mouthed cocky Isreal Peterman, smartly portrayed by the talented Jonathan David Martin (LC’s War Horse). Closest to being one of the good guys, is the old fashioned leader that heads up the Steel corporation at the center of this deal: Thomas Everson, Jr, played earnestly and tragically by Edward Gero (Arena’s Red), his faithful lawyer Maximilien Cizik, beautifully inhabited by the smart and clear minded Lise Bruneau (RTC’s The Cherry Orchard), and the more complex Jacqueline Blount, played with cunning and duplicity by Kashayna Johnson (Mosaic’s Milk Like Sugar). It’s a huge cast of solid professionals, working their magic on us, telling us this convoluted tale of shysters and criminals in very nice suits in a straight forward manner, from four sides and numerous passageways.
Junk is a complicated and compelling morality tale, with Akhtar throwing in all the clichés and stereotypical behavior straight up and neat without a lot of surprises or twists of character. The one aspect I thought was compelling was in the character development of the Lady Macbeth stand-in, wife Amy Merkin, played impressively by the clear headed Shanara Gabrielle (Guthrie’s She Loves Me). Although wanting Merkin to be true to her and play it legally safe, she is also the aggressive and smart force of nature behind the man; the Lady who has to inspire her would-be King Macbeth to do the dirty and power-seeking deed while also (not very convincingly) breast-feed their infant baby boy. It’s a strong characterization, one filled to the brim with nuances and surprises in a play that keeps its head in structuralizations and details coming in from all directions.
For those of us, myself included, who don’t really understand all this Wall Street jargon, (we are told that this was by the Establishment’s design, so we don’t comprehend its intricacies) or even want to, this play is wonderfully sharp and crisp. The creative work done by set designer, Micha Kachman (Arena’s Kleptocracy), lighting designer, Jason Lyons (Signature DC’s Cabaret), and sound design by Darron L. West (Arena’s Healing Wars), with straight laced costuming by Judith Bowden (Canadian Stage’s The Other Place) who thankfully held back from the big shouldered power suit from the 80’s, keeps the focus on the sliding faux religion of finance. The time frame is definitely that period, but as our history tells us, this could happen during any decade. The tracking and blocking are like clockwork on that sometimes cluttered set that echoes the coldness and sterility of this world. The production attempts to widen its judgmental gaze by bringing in some steelworkers but the cards are already so solidly stacked against them, that the add on seems pointless and somewhat distracting. This is all about the money, we are told, and we don’t need these workers to understand who’s getting screwed in the end, although I did appreciate the concept that one screws themselves consciously time and time again, and we don’t all have to be wearing a suit to see that. The nervousness we sit with is in the here and now, even more so then when I saw this play first in 2017 . We sit and watch the banking industry be deregulated more and more by our current administration, making it easier for the rich to make themselves richer without at least some of the restrictions that have helped since the days of Milken/Merkin. This fact only heightens the tension and deep meaning of this drama and sharpens its eyes on the prize. The ending hits witty, wise, and hard, causing knowing fits of nervous laughter to ricochet through the theatre, as we see the vision of the future dancing before the dark King’s eyes. It looks like this could be the beginning of another catastrophe, or at least the first of a series of plays with the first possibly titled, Junk 2: The Bank Collapse. What will Junk 3 be called? Junk 3: The Orange Monster Years? You tell me, or maybe history will decide for us.