Over a quarter of a century ago, Hollywood addressed the issue of hostile corporate take-overs with 1990’s Pretty Woman and 1991’s Other People’s Money. Both dealt with the possible human costs and consequences of these predatory schemes for getting rich, but neither of these light-and-breezy movies examined the depths to which these machinations would sometimes sink in pursuit of wealth and power. Ayad Akhtar’s 2016 play, Junk, on the other hand, takes us beneath the surface to expose the seamier side, the underbelly, and the ruthless tactics employed by these wizards of the world of finance.
Charlie Brady directs Theatre Raleigh’s no-holds-barred production of Junk, currently playing in the Kennedy Theatre in Raleigh, NC’s Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, and, fittingly, the action of this production plows forward with the force of a juggernaut, the pace slowing briefly (presumably to allow us to catch our breath) only when the audience needs time to assess and contemplate some slippery questions of ethics.
Set in the “junk bond” and “hostile take-over” era of the 1980s, Junk focuses on the struggle between a corporate “predator” his “prey.” Robert Merkin (Marc Levasseur), referred to (in the world of the play) by Time Magazine as “America’s Alchemist,” uses a junk-bond strategy in which “debt becomes an asset” to force a leveraged buyout of Everson Steel. Thomas Everson (Jeffrey Blair Cornell), grandson (or, perhaps, great-grandson) of the company’s founder is the CEO who stands in his way.
Merkin started out with nothing and worked his way up to his current position in which he can not only negotiate deals that net hundreds of millions of dollars in profit for individual investors but also collect several million dollars himself. Everson, on the other hand, has inherited his wealth and privilege.
Junk can be interpreted as a war between “old money” and “new” or, perhaps, between a ruthless capitalist and an entrenched industrialist. And there is more than a little exposure anti-Semitism found in the attitudes of the champions of the status quo.
Who is willing to the bend rules? Who feels entitled to break them? And why? Who will side with whom when push-comes-to-shove? And how will law enforcement figure into this tale?
Most important of all: What will happen when Merkin’s “irresistible force” meets Everson’s “immovable object?”
As a frame for the story, playwright Ayad Akhtar gives us an idealistic journalist (Luna Tieu) who is determined to “torpedo every piety of this new faux-religion of finance.” She poses the central question:
When did money become the thing? I mean the only thing. Upgrade your place in line — or your prison cell…. Buy a stranger’s life insurance policy — pay the premium until they die and then collect the benefit. Oh, and cash. How much does it cost now just to get cash?
Side Note: Of the 17 characters in the play, only four are women. Perhaps, this is another statement about the climate of the times.
The entire cast is first-rate.
Calling Marc Levasseur’s Merkin a “force of nature” would be an understatement. With keen attention to detail, this character zeros in on his target, always prepared to switch to “Plan B” when he is met with a counter-attack. And Jeffrey Blair Cornell’s Everson is a worthy adversary. Their “allies,” “assistants,” “cronies,” and “sidekicks” are all well cast — all of these actors portray characters who are “driven” and “determined.” Many characters pay lip-service to a set of values which they almost immediately betray.
Joshua Smith’s set provides a perfect metaphor for the action of the play — it is a tower consisting of four different levels, the upper three of which loom menacingly over those beneath them. Action moves swiftly from one office (or apartment or hotel room) to another (with actors performing lightning-fast, precisely choreographed set changes), and we are constantly reminded that this is a story that is unfolding on multiple levels. The rooms on these levels are revealed and obscured by vertical blinds, thereby suggesting the “closed door” and “backroom” nature of much of the action. The various levels also suggest the “pecking order” in every “faction” that we meet.
Christina L. Munich’s lighting masterfully creates sinister shadows and off-kilter angles that contribute to an ominous feeling of anticipation, and this feeling is augmented by Eric Alexander Collins’ sound that pulses and pounds in the background with varying types of sound effects as it draws us in ever deeper and further forward.
From the Department of Picky-Picky:
(This one is positive): The blocking and lighting employed when clandestine meetings and phone calls are in progress is superb!
(This one is negative and extremely picky): In a scene in which two characters are drinking martinis, there are no olives in their drinks.
This show is powerful and intense, and I do recommend it as a serious piece of expertly produced theatre. It provides insight into the souls (and soullessness) of a wide variety of contemporary “types,” and it can be interpreted as a parable and perhaps even a warning. While we are shown multiple “sides” in this struggle, we are not invited to align ourselves with any one faction — we see the ruthlessness as well as the scars and blemishes of every one of the characters. Is anybody really embracing a concept that is “right” or “good?” Or is everybody always prepared to take the money and run? And where do we, ourselves, stand in the cosmic scheme of things?
Consider consulting https://www.investopedia.com for help with the following terms: “poison pill,” “white knight,” and “golden parachute.” While on that site, you may also want to look up “leverage,” “takeover,” and “junk bond.”
SECOND OPINION: June 10th Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts and Entertainment review by Susie Potter: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2019/06/theatre-raleighs-production-of-junk-is-thoughtful-bold-and-provocative/; 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. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the June 9th Triangle Review review by Melanie Simmons, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2019/06/razor-sharp-direction-top-notch-acting-and-compelling-visuals-make-junk-a-winner/.)
Theatre Raleigh presents JUNK at 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.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-832-9997 or email@example.com.
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).
Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.