Regional Reviews: San Diego
In his new play, JUNK: The Golden Age of Debt, whose world premiere is also being produced by La Jolla Playhouse, Mr. Akhtar shifts gears almost entirely. JUNK works with a large palette, employs a 17-person cast, is based in part on a historical character who is still living, and plays more like a thriller than anything else.
It's also three acts longmore about that later.
While the palette and the living historical figure may hold the play back some, it's still fascinating to watch, as well as to discuss afterward.
The historical figure is Michael Milken (called Robert Merkin in the play), a hostile takeover specialist who was sentenced to prison after making a plea deal on racketeering charges. Milken made a lot of money on these activities, however, and managed not only to keep much of it but to rehabilitate himself in the public eye through running a family foundation that supported breakthroughs in medical research and education.
JUNK dramatizes a hostile takeover like one that led to Milken's conviction. Robert Merkin (Josh Cooke) is behaving as he usually doesidentifying a target company, pulling in a small-potatoes buyer (Matthew Rauch) with dreams of glory and financing the deal in part with money he gets from bullying a mild-mannered client (Jason Kravits) out of his wife's moneyand partly with high-yield (junk) bonds.
The company Merkin goes after is owned by Thomas Everson (Linus Roache). Its core business is steel, and Everson is committed to keeping his steel plant running and his workers employed even though it is clear that he's being beaten into the ground by foreign competition. Everson is the third generation of his family to manage the company, and he wants to honor the legacy of those who came before him.
Nobility, it turns out, is of no value in a hostile takeover. It all comes down to strategy, tactics, and, increasingly, insider information. Merkin's a master of all of these, plus possessing the ability to sell the kind of "trouble" that Professor Harold Hill peddled to the citizens of River City.
Everson isn't without resources, however, and eventually he succeeds in courting a savior in financier Leo Tresler (David Rasche). To reveal more about the machinations involved and their consequences would be to provide the kind "insider information" that theatre companies hate reviewers to disclose.
Like Milken, Merkin gets in hot water and negotiates a plea deal that trades mild jail time for getting to keep a lot of his money. A brief third act provides a coda that connects 1980s shenanigans to the "great recession" of the 21st Century.
Director Doug Hughes stages a bang-up first act. The second act becomes somewhat repetitive, and the pace slackens as a result. In particular, Act 1 sets up the character of a journalist (Jennifer Ikeda) as the story's narrator. Ms. Ikeda's character becomes involved with Leo Tresler and in the process by Act 2 has lost the narrator's voice, to the detriment of the play. With so many major characters the storylines, even if not muddled, take time to play themselves out. To Mr. Hughes' credit, all these characters are well performed by a company that includes actors with Broadway credits as well as a significant number of current and recent MFA students from UC San Diego, where the Playhouse is located.
The production keeps things moving as well. Veteran Scenic Designer John Lee Beatty has created a "Hollywood Squares" framework that provides flexibility for quick scene changes. Lighting designer Ben Stanton varies the wash between and within the squares to good effect. William Mellette's costumes nicely compliment the 80s décor of the set pieces. Mark Bennett's original music and sound design adds to the "thriller" feel of the story.
The Act 3 coda is both felicitous and problematicthe former because it provides an "aha" moment of sorts, as well as giving audience members topics for discussing the genesis of our country's current economic situation (and, there is certainly enough resonance with the current presidential election to give partisans points they can score)the latter because it lengthens an already-long evening. JUNK is both appealing and appalling, and I'd guess that Mr. Akhtar intended both reactions.
La Jolla Playhouse presents the world premiere production of JUNK: The Golden Age of Debt, by Ayad Akhtar and directed by Doug Hughes.
The acting company features Annika Boras, Benjamin Burdick, Tony Carlin, Josh Cooke, Zora Howard, Jennifer Ikeda, Jason Kravits, Jeff Marlow, Zakiya Iman Markland, Sean McIntyre, David Rasche, Matthew Rauch, Armando Riesco, Linus Roache, Henry Spangler, Henry Stram, and Keith Wallace.
At the Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, CA 9203, through August 21, 2016. Tickets available by calling (858) 550-1010 or at www.LaJollaPlayhouse.org.