Theatre Raleigh has just the play for fans of such movies as The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and The Big Short (2015). Junk by Ayad Akhtar (2016 La Jolla Playhouse and 2017 Broadway) is a tightly controlled three-level chess game of a performance piece. Set during the junk-bond financial boom of the 1980’s, Junk follows a high-stakes tennis match between a financial entrepreneur and a third-generation company owner, both fighting to secure their legacies — and line their pockets in the process.
Robert Merkin is out to change the face of the world, and he makes no apologies for it. A ruthless financier with a middle-class ax to grind, Merkin revolutionizes the way the stock market game is played, gathering plenty of enemies in the process. Marc Levasseur’s Merkin is more Christian Bale’s cold brilliance in American Psycho (2000) than it is Leo DiCaprio’s rampant hedonist in The Wolf of Wall Street, to great impact within this show.
Levasseur weaves through the play like a shark in the deep, smelling blood in the water. Jorge Sanchez-Diaz is perfectly matched against Levasseur as Raul Rivera, Merkel’s lawyer and long-time partner in white-collar crime. Jeffrey Blair Cornell plays Thomas Everson, the elitist steel magnate who tries desperately to keep his family business from collapsing underneath Merkel’s machinations.
This is hardly a David-and-Goliath story, however. Everson could care less about his shareholders; and even though he makes fancy speeches to his factory workers, his more private sentiments reveal a man of intense self-interest.
Noah Putterman does an excellent turn as Israel Peterson, the up-and-coming financial investor who tries hard to mimic Merkin’s ruthlessness, but lacks the teeth for a proper bite. When Leo Tressler (played by Kevin Otos), an old-school financial magnate, jumps on board with Emerson for the sole purpose of stopping Merkin, the stakes shoot sky high as everyone scrambles for his piece of the pie. A solid supporting cast does fine jobs all around, executing dozens of scene changes flawlessly and bringing distinction and verve to each of their characters.
This is a male-dominated play, proudly featuring 13 male roles out of 17 total, but that’s not to say the women don’t hold their own. Edith Snow brings velvet-covered steel to Amy Merkin, who is more than an equal match to her ambitious husband. Destiny Diamond especially shines as Jacqueline Blount, one of Emerson’s lawyers and a mole for Merkin.
Diamond’s Blount stands toe-to-toe with the men who move mountains, and holds her own in every scene. Luna Tieu alone seemed to get a bit lost in her role, failing to add depth to the smiling exterior of a woman writer who would do anything for a story.
One of the most mesmerizing facets of Theatre Raleigh is its ability to completely transform the Kennedy Theatre for each production, and this one certainly does not disappoint. Joshua Smith’s stark set towers over the black-box space, rising three stories high with stacked office spaces that brought an excellent variation of playing areas.
The cold, stark angles of the monochromatic staging are brought to life with Christina L. Munich’s mesmerizing lighting design, which pulsates and throbs through intense color shifts and shattered gobos. Combined with Eric Alexander Collins’ driving sound design, the set and lighting pull audience into the gravitational field of the play and isn’t released until the final bows.
Playwright Ayad Akhtar does a good job of masking much exposition through a mix of dialogue, monologues to the audience, and frequent scene changes. This communicates a lot of information to the audience quite effectively, particularly when it comes to the financial matters that could easily go over their heads and cause them to lose interest.
Stellar acting by a consummate cast, together with Charlie Brady’s intricate direction and laser focus, draw the audience in and keep them engaged throughout the intense conflict of the main characters. The overall result is not so much that of a roller-coaster, but that of a bullet train speeding towards its inevitable conclusion.
An attempt to moralize late in Act 2 drags down the otherwise sharp pacing, making the play a good 15 minutes longer than it needs to be. A haunting final scene, however, ties the whole story to modern-day headlines, and leaves the audience with much to contemplate and discuss on their ride home.
Because at the end of the day, is it really greed? Or is it pride that drives these men to do what they do? In Akhtar’s play, it’s not necessarily about making money, or even about changing the course of the world … it’s making about sure that no one else does. Razor-sharp direction, top-notch acting, and compelling visuals make this production of Junk a worthy investment of your time and attention.
SECOND OPINION: June 5th Cary, NC RDU on Stage video-podcast interview with actor David McClutchey, conducted by Lauren Van Hemert: https://rduonstage.com/2019/06/05/video-david-mcclutchey-talks-junk/; and June 5th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://indyweek.com/events/junk-ayad-akhtar.
Theatre Raleigh presents JUNK at 3 p.m. June 9, 8 p.m. June 12-14, 2 and 8 p.m. June 15, and 3 p.m. June 16 in the in the Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, Jr. Theatre in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.
TICKETS: $32 ($30 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel), except $45 premium seating.
BOX OFFICE: 919-832-9997, firstname.lastname@example.org, or https://theatreraleigh.secure.force.com/ticket/#details_a0S61000005W47WEAS.
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SHOW: https://theatreraleigh.com/junk-2/, https://www.facebook.com/events/636763790106672/, and https://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/events/junk-theatre-raleigh.
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PARENTAL ADVISORY: Theatre Raleigh cautions that this show is “Appropriate for 16+ Audiences due to Language and Adult Situations.”
Junk: The Golden Age of Debt (2016 La Jolla Playhouse and 2017 Broadway drama): https://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=5767 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/junk-513492 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Junk:_The_Golden_Age_of_Debt (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Ayad Akhtar (playwright): http://ayadakhtar.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/ayad-akhtar-494629 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayad_Akhtar (Wikipedia).
Charlie Brady (Raleigh, NC director): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/charlie-brady-476211 (Internet Broadway Database).
Melanie Simmons of Cary, NC is a film and stage actress with a BA degree in Theatre from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, CA. She has studied acting with Sande Shurin Acting Studios in New York City and The Actor’s Workshop in Los Angeles, CA; and she now trains locally with Lynda Clark (stage), Daryl Ray Carlisle (film/commercial), and Rebekah Holland (voice). Simmons has performed at Raleigh Little Theatre in Raleigh, Forest Moon Theater in Wake Forest, Stageworks Theatre in Holly Springs, and many others. She is represented by Talent One Agency in Raleigh. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.