Review: Theatre Raleigh’s Cinematic ‘Junk’ Spins a Cautionary Tale

By Lauren Van Hemert

Nestled against the sky-high castles of money, greed, and immorality sits Ayad Akhtar’s thought-provoking, Tony-nominated play Junk, which is currently playing at the Kennedy Theatre in Downtown Raleigh. The cautionary tale is the second production in Theatre Raleigh’s summer season and is inspired by the real-life junk bond kings of the 1980s, including Michael Milken. Milken is best known for leveraging high-yield, high-risk bonds to orchestrate hostile takeovers of such companies as Revlon and Nabisco. In 1989 he was indicted for racketeering and securities fraud.

Milkin served as a muse for the central character in Akhtar’s play. Here, a thieving Robert Merkin, dubbed “America’s Alchemist” by Time magazine, is orchestrating a hostile takeover of Everson Steel, a family-owned company run by Thomas Everson. In Merkin’s corner are an army of duplicitous characters, including a smooth-talking lawyer, corporate raider, a mole, and two shifty pawns, not to mention his cunning wife Amy. On Everson’s side are his dutiful lawyer Maximilien Cizik and business magnate Leo Tresler. Simplistically speaking, it’s David versus Goliath, a no-holds-barred spin doctor versus an old-style American industrialist.

If all this sounds a bit familiar, it may be because business-themed narratives are nothing new on stage or screen. In fact, corporate wheeling and dealing have been the subject of many movies from the 1987 movie Wall Street to the 2015 film The Big Short. Audiences partial to the financial thriller genre will appreciate director Charlie Brady’s cinematic approach to the Theatre Raleigh production. From Josh Smith’s towering set to Eric Collins’ effective sound design to Christina Munich’s lighting, this production certainly feels more like a movie than a play.

The way Brady has staged some of the intense exchanges between the characters is gripping, as are some of the performances, notably Marc Levasseur’s charismatic portrayal of Robert Merkin, Jeffrey Blair Cornell’s noble portrayal of Thomas Everson, and Edith Snow’s polished portrayal of Amy Merkin, Robert’s cunning wife. But some of the tension feels contrived, confusing, and even predictable, which may be why Akhtar reworked the play after its 2017 Lincoln Center Theatre run. Apparently, he clarified, tightened, and streamlined the piece for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater production, which made its debut earlier this year.

The Theatre Raleigh production is the original version in two acts, which does feel drawn out and slightly melodramatic at times, particularly towards the end. Even so, Brady’s vision here, along with Akhtar’s commentary on our financial system and the American Dream, has a contemporary feel to it and is so scarily relevant and timely it will leave audiences reflecting on the past and perhaps even brooding about the future.

Junk runs through June 16th at the Kennedy Theatre at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. For more information visit: https://theatreraleigh.com.

Photo by Jennifer Robertson.

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