Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
Also see Garrett's review of Pippin
Like those two movies, Akhtar's play is set in the 1980s investment banking culture. We meet Robert Merkin (a commanding Marc Levasseur), who sees himself as a modern-day J.P. Morgan. He has embraced the philosophy that debt is the best way to amass huge amounts of wealth: junk bonds. How long before he runs out of luck? How many people will he bring down when he does? It's probably not a spoiler to say that things will not end well.
Merkin is based on real-life financial villain Michael Milken, who played a key role in the savings and loan crisis that lasted into the '90s, but financial novices needn't worry; Akhtar skillfully educates the audience about the stock market and its terminology, giving us a smooth on-ramp to this fast-paced story. It certainly helps, too, that this cast is quite strong. Marc Levasseur makes Merkin both revolting and very human; his recklessness feels understandable and almost justified. PlayMakers favorite Jeffrey Blair Cornell is the hard-nosed Thomas Everson, whose company Merkin is sharking. Daniel P. Wilson's Boris Pronsky works for Merkin; he's in over his head but can't do a thing about it. Other standouts are Sean McCracken as middleman Mark O'Hare, the all-too-confident caricature of the Wall Street egoist, and Larry Evans as Murray Lefkowitz, the fearful everyman who invests in Merkin with reluctance.
The characters move up and down the levels of Josh Smith's cold, gray, and highly symbolic skyscraper, each floor divided by rows of vertical blinds, flashing from one scene to the next. Smith's ingenuity extends to the floor, which rises up to form boardroom tables and beds. Christina L. Munich's lighting design easily evokes the streets of New York, a wooded park, and even the coast of California. Sound design by Eric Alexander Collins underscores the fast life of investment bankers with ticking clocks and news coverage of Wall Street's ups and downs. The production design makes the show even more enthralling.
Running two and a half hours, not including intermission, this play might be 15-20 minutes too long, particularly in the second act. But, overall, Junk is gripping and engaging. In today's world of heavy college debt, with memories of high interest rates and predatory mortgages, it's tempting to wonder how we got here. This thought-provoking play provides much to talk about; one hopes it might prompt some wiser choices as we move forward.
Junk, through June 16, 2019, at Theatre Raleigh, Kennedy Theatre, Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, 2 East South St., Raleigh NC. Tickets can be purchased online at www.theatreraleigh.com or by phone at 919-832-9997.
Playwright: Ayad Akhtar
Cast: (in alphabetical order)