Street Corner Arts' Junk
Ayad Akhtar's drama about Eighties junk bond traders plays like a prequel to 21st century America and its financial crises
Reviewed by Elizabeth Cobbe, Fri., March 8, 2019
One of the admirable things about Ayad Akhtar's Junk is that, for all the financial mumbo jumbo, the audience can easily take away what they need from the facts of the case. In the 1980s, a new class of investors began taking over large corporations using junk bonds, which are financed through debt. If that sounds unstable, that's because it is.
In a sense, Junk is like a prequel to 21st-century America. It's set in the era in which investors sowed the seeds for the mortgage-backed securities crisis, the unstable gig economy, the rapid deindustrialization of blue-collar America, and so on. The play tells the story of the men and women (but mostly the men) who fought over the ownership of vast wealth and how they dismantled countless lives along the way.
It does so with an unusually long cast list for a semiprofessional theatre production. Street Corner Arts has gathered a strong ensemble, and thanks to Benjamin Summers' direction, every character's arc is clear and well-mapped. Summers also moves the play at an appropriately quick pace, taking what's needed from each scene and letting the details jog past, wisely trusting that the overall narrative will remain intact.
The complicated plot boils down to a single corporate takeover. Robert Merkin (Carlo Lorenzo Garcia) engineers takeovers, and now he's set his sights on the publicly owned Everson Steel, using Israel Peterman (Zac Carr) as his vehicle to get there. Merkin disregards the rules of law and basic human compassion to get what he wants from CEO Thomas Everson Jr. (Joe Penrod), an old-school businessman who actually cares about the steelworkers he employs. The mechanics of Merkin's maneuverings aside, it's a classic generational story in which the newcomers have arrived seeking blood.
The challenge that Junk, which premiered in 2016, faces with a production in 2019 is that if you want to see stories of how a bunch of privileged men with no tether to morality have wrecked the country, you can just read the news. The cast of Street Corner Arts' production has located the humanity in their characters, but these characters still are not likable. That's kind of the point, but nearly three hours of characters like Merkin, whose only redeeming quality is that he likes his family, can wear on the soul – and the 2019 soul is arguably quite worn already.
However, if you haven't gone insane yet from what current events are doing to us, then Junk is a smart evening of well-produced theatre. Street Corner Arts has added another good production to a solid body of work.
JunkZach Theatre’s Whisenhunt Stage, 1510 Toomey
Through March 9
Running time: 2 hr., 45 min.