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Theater Review: “Junk: The Golden Age Of Debt”

Zakiya Iman Markland, Linus Roache and Henry Stram
Photo credit:
Jim Carmody

If the intricacies of junk bond trading leave you in “Huh?” mode like they do me, don’t look to Ayad Akhtar’s latest play to enlighten you very much. But you can’t miss the warning he’s sending.

La Jolla Playhouse presents the world premiere of “Junk: The Golden Age Of Debt” through Aug. 21 at the Mandell Weiss Theatre, directed by Doug Hughes.

Inspired (if that’s quite the word) by the exploits of the real-life Michael Milken, America’s junk bond king extraordinaire, “Junk” opens in 1985, as protagonist Robert Merkin (Josh Cooke) plots with his buddies the hostile takeover of Everson Steel and United, a longtime family business which has fallen on difficult times because the steel business has declined.

In a fairly frantic first act, the victim is identified and targeted: CEO Tom Everson Jr. (Linus Roache), a decent man who has no way to effectively counter the moves of Merkin and his henchmen: suave Cuban American lawyer Raúl Rivera (Armando Riesco), reptilian corporate raider Israel Peterman (Matthew Rauch) and arbitrageur Boris Pronsky (Jeff Marlowe).

You might get a little dizzy as Doug Hughes directs the rat-a-tat first-act action on John Lee Beatty’s appropriately stark dual-level “Hollywood Squares”-look set of ten neon-lit office cubicles, some with furniture that can be pulled out. Here the characters slide in and out as the deal takes shape.

Among them: Jacqueline Blount (Zakiya Iman Markland), the African American lawyer, efficient, ambitious, charming; private equity magnate Leo Tresler (David Rasche), rich and lovable, with a swagger; Amy Merkin (Annika Boras), Robert’s wife, a financial wizard in her own right; Judy Chen (Jennifer Ikeda), Chinese American journalist who wants to profile Merkin, and Murray Lefkowitz (Jason Kravits), the poor schlemiel of an investor whose wife wants him out of Merkin’s clutches. 

“Junk” marks a leap into new territory for Akhtar: this show lists 17 actors playing 23 roles. Most of his plays (such as his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Disgraced”) use a small cast to tell an intimate story. Not so here: “Junk” is epic in sweep. 

Artistically and technically, this is a splendid production. Bravo to Hughes and his cast for making it work as work as well as it does. 

But the play needs serious cuts (especially in the first act, much of which – aside from being head-spinning – seems redundant), but Akhtar’s good feel for characterization and fine ability with snappy dialogue help here. And the second intermission and third act are really unnecessary.

Akhbar suggests that what we saw in the ’80s hasn’t stopped, and that our lives are in danger of being taken over – not by foreign terrorists or despots, but by corrupt businessmen, lacking conscience and willing to ruin anybody if they can see dollar signs in it. 

The details

“Junk: The Golden Age Of Debt” runs through August 21, 2016 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus). 

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday and /Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm Tickets: (858) 550-1010 or lajollaplayhouse.org