Entertainment » Theatre
by Wickham Boyle
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Nov 13, 2017
The world has become an America-first place, a “me, me, me and the rest of the world be damned” kinda place, run by the orange egotist-in-chief. And so Lincoln Center’s “JUNK” is a natural place to begin the tale of an American downfall.
I loved this show. It was a delight to see a work that wrapped together with my disparate workplace understandings. Solipsistic yes, but I have worked both in theater and on Wall Street. Weird, I know, but this isn’t my story. Although in a way “JUNK” is an intensely personal story for all of us living in the modern day muddle, which is 21st Century capitalist America.
The year in 1985 and the locales are LA, NYC and Allegheny Pa. The characters are over two dozen, ranging from stockbrokers to money managers, brokers, a journalist, captains of industry, lawyers, coal miners, spouses, girlfriends, and waiters. The large cast plays them all flawlessly with a special mention to Ito Aghayere, who plays a journalist of squishy morals, Matthew Rauch as Izzy Peterman, and a favorite of mine Joey Slotnich playing Boris Pronsky.
This is the world that many of us remember as the fertile ground for the birth of junk bonds. “JUNK” is a complex selling of parts of parts, leaving the whole in shambles because the financial value of the parts exceeds the valuation of the whole. That is unless one ascribes value to things like longevity, goodwill, employees, and rectitude.
The main character in the actual Greek drama of junk bonds was a man named Michael Milken, who wore a notoriously bad toupee, bilked millions out of colleagues and small clients alike and negotiated a prison sentence that allowed him to retain control over his millions. This Milken character is hilariously called Bob Merkin. For those of you who are not Shakespearean nerds, a merkin is a pubic wig. Hysterical. So a man who famously wore a bad wig is now in a drama about him, where his character is named after a long-forgotten wig worn on, in modern parlance, your junk.
You can revel in this play even if you don’t speak finance, Shakespeare or economics. This is the short of it. And no I don’t mean selling short because that is covered too, as are options, the nascence of the housing debacle, IPO’s, insider trading, whales, racism, sexism, and coercive language. If you have been an eager observer of the collapse of the housing market, the deregulation of the banks, the enormous disparity in wealth between the coal miners in Alleghany and the uber-rich, then this is a theatrical goldmine. But if you don’t like smart, edgy writing done by a master, then Ayad Akhtar’s play is not for you. However, you’ll be missing a hundred fifty minutes of non-stop intrigue, roguery, and just downright marvelous theater.
The thrust stage at the Vivian Beaumont has a set that is a huge grid onto which an enormous stock market crawl can be projected or bedrooms, restaurants and G Men can emerge to move the play seamlessly along. This setting designed by John Lee Beatty is a perfect foil for projections by 59 Productions, and original music by Mark Bennett and Ben Stanton’s evocative lighting.
Doug Hughes is a director with a glorious touch. The work moves, it provokes, and it enlightens all at a break-neck pace. This mirrors the speed of deals concocted and catapulted through the machinations of the lead, the Milken character, played by Steven Pasquale. Sadly, although I am a huge Pasquale fan, I feel he is too soft, too thoughtful, and too reflective to embody the ruthless men. Yes, it was nearly all men, I witnessed on Wall Street. These were mere manchildren getting sexual favors under desks, snorting coke in the men’s room and the boardroom, driving Ferraris that were purchased from a single month’s pay, and crashing these Italian beauties on drunken nights, only to replace them in another color the following month. I saw this.
Any of the depictions in films like “Wall Street” or the new blockbuster television drama, “Billions” are not understated. It was insane. The pace and the money moving was beyond heady, and I was an only a low-level broker opening same-sex couples in accounts that were questioned by the compliance officer as “impossible.” Even investments in mutual funds saw amounts double and triple at lightning speed. And just as quickly the plug was pulled, and all the value drained out leaving people penniless. It was a huge manipulation with the strings pulled by the likes of Milken, and Ivan Boesky — and these are just the two who did a modest amount of jail time.
“JUNK” shows the start of wild market manipulation and the alchemical creation of wealth from imaginings. The character Merkin is one among many who have reshaped the world to a nearly unrecognizable kingdom of the rich wallowing in troughs of capital while the bulk of humanity subsists on the same wages from decades ago and the sense that the world doesn’t care.
Or maybe it does.
“JUNK” runs through January 7, 2018, at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65th Street. For tickets or information, call 877-970-6893 or visit http://www.newyorkcitytheatre.com/theaters/vivianbeaumonttheater/tickets