Rep’s ‘Junk’ Is Fast-Paced Thriller

Big cast of juicy characters and dark, witty look at Wall Street junk bond deals of 1980s.

By - Jan 21st, 2019 03:46 pm
Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents Junk in the Quadracci Powerhouse from January 15 – February 17, 2019. Left to Right: Justin Huen, Matt Daniels, James Ridge, N’Jameh Camara, Brian Mani and Gregory Linington. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents Junk in the Quadracci Powerhouse from January 15 – February 17, 2019. Left to Right: Justin Huen, Matt Daniels, James Ridge, N’Jameh Camara, Brian Mani and Gregory Linington. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The Milwaukee Rep’s most important and engrossing drama of the season charges through the junk bond shenanigans of America 1980s with the confidence of a thriller. In this war of the bankrolls, as epic as Shakespeare’s War of the Roses, the motives, schemes, double-crosses and human impulses spare no ethnic heritage and elevate no one.

Junk is hardly a potboiler. But it moves as fast as one, which makes its depth and undertones even more fascinating. It can’t claim to break new ground, since rapacious Wall Street has become a familiar theme in movies and plays. But few offerings have so deftly combined melodramatic encounters, a hypnotic guru and office plotting into a frightening whole vision of capitalism run amuck. Few plays reveal characters so quickly, a “who did what to whom” experience patrons can enjoy through February 17 at the Quadracci Powerhouse.

To those who fear that high finance is a maze beyond them, you are playwright Ayad Akhtar’s target. Using recognizable Everymen and Women fleshed out into individuals, he explores the crazed desires that made selling debt the road to success, and the worse the debt the better. The junkier the bond the bigger the profit, the bigger the hypnosis. Americana speeches like we still get — “good for the country, good for the worker” – are speared by Akhtar on the tongue, revealing a bitter taste . . .  until the next mesmerizing spiel shows up.

In some ways it is unlike other offerings of Akhtar (though much alike in the wit and word play). He has a special relationship with the Rep to do all his plays and this one first received much favorable comment after a late 2017 Broadway opening.

What makes it a standout in a sea of Wall Street dissections is how seamless and natural this quick-moving world of characters and their domestic and public moments seems. It may be an epic but director Mark Clements makes some 20 characters flit in and out of our experience without our feeling manipulated. He and most of the actors have found the naturalistic key to the production, while swirling us all around and up and down the stage in the process. A few times he freezes characters in one spot too long, but his pop them in, pop them out technique is effective, allowing us to move from one character to another at high speed, while eager for the first character to return.

Akhtar has a gift of refusing to let us accept anyone as hero or villain, giving the important characters different ways to intrude into our memories.  Most have a moment where we like them, followed by a moment where we hate them. The lawyer fighting the takeover has a takeover of her own in mind. The financially naïve prosecutor has his eye on the White House.  The journalist who leads our inquiry is not just evaluating the players but seeking ways to join them.

There is also the playwright’s quiet revelations of implicit racism or privilege in how these characters talk  – “not making a deal on Saturdays” is code for being Jewish, the Chinese as well as Jews are good with numbers, Hispanics are all “hard working people,” immigrants are striving to become “like us,” the white folks say proudly about their neighbors. Yet these people are just going about their lives and normal behavior, as we all do, unaware that Akhtar is drilling through their ear wax. Is the playwright, sometimes identified as of Pakistani heritage, just pointing out or being too pointed?  He certainly makes us hear things the way he does and probably should.

Several in his cast are quite comfortable at the crispness in which they must paint their presence. Some good actors relish the little gestures that mount into a whole, such as Jonathan Wainwright as a shady trader in the night, while other good actors seem uncomfortable as if they wished to move around more, such as Rebecca Hirota and Demetrios Troy. Others sense a dynamite within their characters that makes motion or lack of it equally gripping, including Justin Huen as a Latino wheeler dealer, Matt Daniels as, of all things, a lawyer who talks back, and American Players veteran Brian Mani as a commanding rich self-described savior, unaware of his own bigotry.

Junk is a somewhat fictionalized telling of how junk bond king Mike Milken rose and fell – here played cunningly but straight-ahead by Gregory Linington as “Robert Merkin,” a ruthless televangelist of greed with a suburban Lady Macbeth, played by Rachel Sledd, to talk him out of his doubts and try to scare him away from old shady contacts as the law closes in. Linington commands our attention with an almost casual cruelty as he stalks the stage.

Other standouts are James Ridge as the disbelieving target of a takeover and Norman Moses as a constantly panicked investor, but there are other vignettes quickly established and staying in our mind.

The staging is a marvel, with beds and chairs on wheels that fly out to fill a gray marbled stage of blockish perches, hidden doors and dazzling changing projections of cityscapes and convention halls, a masterful concoction of scenic designer Todd Edward Ivins and projection designer Jared Mezzocchi.

With full use of an accomplished technical staff, director Clements has found the key to Akhtar’s thriller – keeping the dialogue flow so natural and the beats of meaning so clear that volumes are exposed beneath the surface.

Junk in also a reminder of why artists remain crucial to our insights into humanity. Angels in America in a surreal way exposed truths about AIDS and the American psyche that textbooks couldn’t. The Little Foxes did the same with family avarice. Death of a Salesman revealed a sad underbelly of the American Dream. Junk for all its cynicism exposes how tempting to the human condition are the motors of acquisition within us all. In a subtle forecast at the end, an imprisoned Merkin wonders if there is a way to package mortgage defaults together to avoid down payments and make money – a hint of the next basement in Wall Street’s sink to the bottom.

Junk Gallery

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You can find his blog here and here.

One thought on “Theater: Rep’s ‘Junk’ Is Fast-Paced Thriller”

  1. Thomas Martinsen says:

    I second Mr. Noth;s observations on the fast pace, the depth and the breadth of this play. It ran approximately 2 hours, without an intermission, and my wife and I were both glad that there was no intermission. We were spellbound by the # and diversity of well developed characters and by the very human perspectives the playwright presented on people who behaved badly for the most part. Urban Milwaukee readers who have not yet seen this play could do themselves favors by seeing it.

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