Junk, now playing at the Lincoln Center, is a play full of fantastic acting, interesting staging and intelligent writing. Unfortunately, it is also a depressing call back to the worst of the 1980’s that holds up a fun house mirror to today’s issues, making that horrible time look quaint by comparison. It is not a pleasant evening. Your tolerance for Junk will depend on how much you can appreciate great actors being horrible people.
The story is complex, but not complicated. At its essence, Junk tells the tale of a corporate raider, his lawyer, and the acquiring firm’s CEO and their struggle to acquire a steel conglomerate listed on the Dow Jones. These three are played excellently by Steven Psaquale, Matthew Saldivar and Matthew Rauch, respectively. Steven Pasquale is Robert Merkin, the new Time Magazine Cover Boy of junk bonds and leveraged debt. For Robert Merkin, takeovers are both personal and professional. As a Jewish man, he witnessed his father’s rejection by the (WASP) Wall Street power brokers. Today, his drive and desire to rip apart that world is equal parts revenge, greed and Napoleon complex.
|Hunter and Prey - Steven Psaquale and Rick Holmes in Junk (Henry Stram- upstage right)|
Rick Holmes is Thomas Everton Jr., CEO of Everton Steel, the takeover target. He is a nice guy CEO, although he may be cooking the books a little to save steel jobs in his hometown. His two lawyers are a Jewish man and an African American Woman (Henry Stram and Ito Aghayere) who try to explain the new paradigm of debt financing and the threat to his company. Everton is too rigid, too sentimental and a little too bigoted to make it in this new cut-throat world.
The final leg of the triangle of players is a Chinese American journalist (Teresa Avia Lim) and rich old white power player Leo Tressler (Michael Siberry - who is wonderfully morally superior). These characters provide the extensive exposition and creepy sexual politics.
There are a lot of shades of grey in the morality of this show, but not in the manner you’re used to seeing. Normally shades of grey define the mental conflict of the good vs. the bad guys. Here, everyone is a greedy S.O.B., there are no good guys. The grey here is displayed as some of the characters are, occasionally, less morally bankrupt than others. America, as defined by Junk, is a fight between greedy upstarts with grudges to bear - who delight in humiliating their enemies, versus greedy white male racists. Women fare poorly, each one in Junk sells out her principals for money or power, often both. Men fare worse, only because there are more of them who provide a greater variety of repulsive moral traits.
Playwright Ayad Akhtar and director Doug Hughes do a fantastic job of explaining the way takeovers are financed, the impacts of “creative destruction” and showing that everyone in America is complicit. Junk might have provided an apt warning against smugness if Hillary Clinton had won the election. In the current political environment, however, it just feels like gratuitous piling on. The American Dream is dead, we get it.