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Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors 


Stephen Pasquale as Robert Merkin in Junk.  Photo: T. Charles

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors 

Junk, an electrifying and riveting epic tale about the machinations of finance, was inspired by Wall Street of 30 years ago. It has the relevancy of this morning's newsbreak.

Ayad Akhtar's latest play, Junk, at the Vivian Beaumont Theater scrutinizes how it all came about. One of America's finest contemporary writers, Akhtar presents the complex issue of identifying our devious money culture. He was inspired by the world of Wall Street in the 1980s, the inside trading of Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky and the combative drama of corporate raiders. It was a time of debt and high-risk, high-yield securities (junk bonds).

Regarding how Americans have been lured by corporate thievery, Akhtar says, “It’s a story of the transformation of the American economy to an economy where things don’t make money; money makes money.”

As an adroit cast of 23 weaves seamlessly through the complicated world of big money, our eyes zero in on the charismatic Steven Pasquale playing Robert Merken, a cool character inspired by junk bond wizard, Michael Milken. From the top of the financial heap at an investment bank, Sacker-Lowell, Merken provides funding for upcoming corporate raids. 

Merken believes that the path to a new life in the marketplace is through debt, highly leveraged debt, claiming, "How do you think JP Morgan made the kind of money he did? Rockefeller? Carnegie? They bent the rules. That’s how they made their fortunes. And the world lived with it. No, the world loved it."

Whispering in Merken's wife is Amy (Miriam Silverman), a savvy financier herself who foresees looming risk in her husband's future and for good reason. Investigating Merkin for financial fraud are Ass't U.S. attorney, Kevin Walsh (Phillip James Brannon) and U.S. attorney Guiseppe Addesso, a Rudy Giuliani prototype played by Charlie Semine. Will a witness crumble and turn state's evidence? Predictably, Merkin is finally betrayed by Boris Pronsky (Joey Slotnik), playing his Ivan Boesky-arbitageur games.

Merkin exploits everyone in his orbit to acquire more and more money.  He encourages a young wheeler-dealer, Israel (Izzy) Peterman (Matthew Rauch) in a hostile take-over of Everson Steel, run by C.E.O. Thomas Everson Jr. (Rick Holmes). Also in the financial circle is old school private-equity titan, Leo Tresler, in a standout performance by Michael Siberry.

Journalism and opportunism come into play through wily Judy Chen (Teresa Avia Lim), inserting herself into the financial world and accumulating her own benefits. “This is a story of kings,” she says. “Or what passes for kings these days.” 

Directed with intoxicating rapid speed by Doug Hughes, the staging is dramatic on John Lee Beatty's slippery sleek black two-story space, a wall of numbers with movers and shakers dressed by Catherine Zuber striding through illuminated spaces. The determined pace moves to original music by Mark Bennett and Ben Stanton's compelling lighting. Despite the interlaced theme, the play moves swiftly for two-and-a-half hours.

With Akhtar's fidelity to finding the truth, Junk is another of his must-see plays exploring cultural mores. This time the world is market manipulation, the religion is finance and the God society worships is great wealth. 

Lincoln Center Theater
Vivian Beaumont
150 - West 65 St, New York, NY
Previews: Oct 5, 2017. Opening: Nov. 2, 2017. Closing: Jan. 7, 2018
Running time: 2 hours. 30 minutes. One intermission.
Cast: Ito Aghayere (Jaqueline Blount), Phillip James Brannon (Kevin Welch), Tony Carlin (Corrigan Wiley, Union Rep), Caroline Hewitt (Charlene Stewart), Rick Holmes (Thomas Everson Jr.), Ted Koch (MarK O'Hare, Counsel), Teresa Avia Lim (Judy Chen), Nate Miller (Waiter), Steven Pasquale (Robert Merkin), Ethan Phillips (Lawyer), Matthew Rauch (Israel Peterman), Matthew Saldivar (Raul Rivera), Charlie Semine (Giuseppe Adesso), Michael Siberry (Leo Tressler), Miriam Silverman (Amy Merkin), Joey Slotnick (Boris Pronsky), Henry Stram (Maximilien Cizik); Jenelle Chu, Demosthenes Chrysan, Ian Lassiter,Adam Ludwig, Sean McIntyre, Stephanie Umoh
Playwright: Ayad Ahktar
Director: Doug Hughes

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors
November 2017

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