By Yuko Kurahashi
The world-premiere of Ayad Akhtar’s JUNK: The Golden Age of Debt, directed by Doug Hughes, is currently playing at La Jolla Playhouse.
JUNK’s pivotal character is Robert Merkin, a financier, loosely based on bond traders from the junk-bond era of the 1980s such as Michael Milken. Merkin helps Israel “Izzy” Peterman, a businessman, to wage a hostile takeover of a Dow Jones industrial steel company owned by Thomas Everson, the grandson of the founder.
The names Merkin and Izzy resonate with Jacob Izzy Merkin who was associated with the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme. This association highlights the connection between Akhtar’s fictional world and the real financial world. What the audience sees during the three-act play are financiers who make their money by manipulating the market and saddling companies with debt.
In a program note, Akhtar explains that he is not writing about “that period” (the 1980s) but writing about “now.” Avoiding a simple dichotomy of good and evil, Akhtar’s characters demonstrate complex human traits including greed, ambition, regret, conscience, compassion, sympathy, anger, and despair. Hughes’ direction in combination with expressionistic staging and realistic acting creates a powerful presentation of how the modern financial world was created.
Josh Cooke as Merkin has developed his innovative use of junk bonds as a new vehicle to make money. Cooke, as Merkin, is convincing when he gives a speech about the state of the US economy within the developing world economy which challenges our assumptions about American supremacy. Annika Boras plays Merkin’s wife Amy who is his equal partner but is concerned about his riskier illegal activities.
Jennifer Ikeda plays Judy Chen, a journalist who is investigating Merkin for a book. Serving as narrator, she occasionally steps out of the moment to comment on the situation, often to a humorous effect.
Leo Tresler, played by David Rasche, is a pragmatic and romantic billionaire, who is offended by Merkin and the changes in investing that Merkin has wrought. Linus Roache’s Thomas Everson portrays a steel company owner who is obsessed with his family legacy and keeping his steel company viable. Roache plays Everson sympathetically but with the character’s weakness and vulnerability.
Matthew Rauch as Israel Peterman seems spoiled and immature, representing a new generation of corporate executives. Rauch’s Peterman is complimented by Armando Riesco as Raúl Rivera, the young lawyer for Merkin. Jason Kravits plays a whiny and frantic Murray Lefkowitz, one of Merkin’s investors. Statuesque Zakiya Iman Markland plays Jacqueline Blount, Everson’s attorney. Jeff Marlow plays Boris Pronsky as a slick financier who manipulates the price of stocks for Merkin. Henry Stram portrays Maximilien Cizik, the financial adviser to Everson, with a mixture of sensibility, anxiety, and despair. Benjamin Burdick plays Giuseppi Addesso, a Rudy Giuliani character who is running for mayor and sees the prosecution of Merkin as a springboard for his campaign.
Tony Carlin, Zora Howard, Sean McIntyre, Hunter Spangler and Keith A. Wallace complete the high caliber ensemble that portray union workers, assistants, attorneys, law enforcement, and investors.
Scenic designer John Lee Beatty creates a two-story structure of 10 cubicles (five on the stage level and five on the upper level with sliding doors in upstage). Each cubicle is framed by lights which shine in gold or silver. Each scene change occurs in a different cubicle as pieces of furniture—a chair, bed, sofa, and bench—are brought forward through opaque doors, transforming the cubicles into a bedroom, an office, a restaurant, a park, and a prison. Lighting designer Ben Stanton illuminates the doors in different colors to suggest changes in time, place, and mood.
Sound designer Mark Bennett composed the original music used throughout the performance, including a distinctive sound for the top of each scene. Costume designer William Mellette has put the characters in executive power suits and other outfits from the 1980s.
An acclaimed novelist, screenwriter, and playwright, Ayad Akhtar previously wrote Disgraced (the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), The Who & The What and The Invisible Hand. Akhtar extensively worked with Hughes to develop JUNK.
JUNK: The Golden Age of Debt runs through August 21, 2016 at the Mandell Weiss Theatre of La Jolla Playhouse.