Dec 6th, 2017
Fun Fact: Ayad Akhtar is a novelist and screenwriter who garnered great success with his play Disgraced and won the Pulitzer Drama prize in 2013.
Target Audience: Whether you are counting your pennies or penthouses, this play is captivating and will hopefully bridge the gap between the two. The production is gripping and aptly staged at the opulent Lincoln Center that tirelessly aims to give rise to young artists and is always a treat to visit.
Best Bit: The performances of each cast member were superb. Despite Akhtar's accomplished script it relies heavily on a focused and dedicated cast, especially against the brilliantly bare set by John Lee Beatty which places each character under severe scrutiny.
Morning After Effect: I woke up singing my very own remixed version of Abba's "Money, Money, Money" interspersed with Fiddler on the Roof "If I were a Rich Man". This looped over and over in my mind until I came to the realization that Akhtar's play had a tremendous impact on my heightened suspicion about the wealth in the world and if we will ever draw the line between success and injustice.
Verdict: Worth every cent!
Ayad Akhtar's new play JUNK asks what a dollar bill is but a mere promise from the Government to honor its value, and how exactly that value is honored? Akhtar's play opens a window into the lives of the men and women moving money in the private sector to make more, robbing Peter to pay Paul if you will. Have we come that far since the years before the Reformation when church taxes had to be paid to St. Paul in London and to St. Peter in Rome? Even back then, people were scrambling for money to pay the authorities while the top tier sat on velvet cushions devouring feasts funded by the working class. Most of America can identify, except today religion is no longer the driving force, instead it is the faith the people have in the American Dream, in money - whichever form it inhabits.
Set between three locations - Los Angeles, New York and Allegheny Philadelphia - we witness the mindset on Wall Street in the eightie - an era fueled by junk bonds and high-risk deals played by money hungry high-rollers on a trajectory path to power. A dark time in the American economy when junk bond kings realized they could orchestrate a hostile takeover of a business using debt to fund the purchase. Debt became an asset and the hostility and unrelenting greed grew, wiping out family businesses run by generations and sweeping companies right from under business owners' feet. Though set in the eighties, indicated solely by Tom Watson's wig and hairdo design and Catherine Zuber's loose-fitting box suits, this story could equally be set in present day.
The first act is layered with financial jargon and fast paced dialogued forcing you to sit up and pay attention or get left behind - an underlying theme of JUNK. Akhtar also makes reference to "the system" ensuring the general public feel baffled and bewildered by terms and details, ultimately relying on institutions to handle our most intimate affair, our income, our hard-earned cash. It appears that the rich (even if funded by debt) have both bought time and have access to knowledge to help them assess their next move. Off the bat, we despise these greedy men and yet feel the alluring pulse of their growing power and a possibility for change. Akhtar then places the audience "in the know" and suddenly we embark on the journey through back alleys and million dollar mysteries. The writing is genius and leaves no loose ends but rather a gasp of further suspense as the lights fade to black, leaving the audience with more to question.
Akhtar has presented well rounded female and male characters, each with their valued contribution to this story. It is evident that both the actors and director Doug Hughes have honored the writing and deliver a top-class performance. "JUNK is a fictionalized account suggested by events in the historical public record. The characters in this play are dramatic concoctions, stitched together - at all times - with details pulled from history, but these characters are never anything other than fictions" says Ayad Akhtar.
Fictitious though they be, there is a frightening truth that a handful of men hold the power and manipulate every facet of life in America - the prisons, the health care, the education, the arts, and the politics - proving money is power. Akhtar adds a layer of religious rivalry which highlights the emotional drive many of these deals may harbor. This is not just a war on money, but pride, ego, honor and legacy. JUNK is a attention-grabbing production and a powerful return for the distinguish playwright Ayad Akhtar to the Lincoln Center.
Leading man Steven Pasquale plays the crafty financier Robert Merkin. Pasquale takes us on a twisted journey of love-hate toward money, the powers that be, the injustice and the possibilities. His delivery moves between suave and slimy with an unstoppable greed that manipulates even those closest to him. He embodies a python getting bigger and better with each kill. A successful man is often a result of the company he keeps and thus proves true with the incredibly talented cast sharing the stage.
Matthew Saldivar (playing Raul Rivera), Joey Slotnick (Boris Pronsky), and Rick Holmes (Thomas Everson, Jr) all represent very different types of money hungry men in this race to the top. For Saldivar it feels sexy, he appears to be the new horse fresh out the gates and ready to win, yet Slotnick reveals the other end of the spectrum, the barn rat scrambling between the danger and all the while Everson slips from being the sure bet to the horse that breaks its leg. Their collective performance gallops this fast-paced narrative along like pedigree stallions at the Kentucky Derby which is thrilling. Ultimately, a luxurious day at the races despite being dressed to the nines and sipping on champagne, is still gambling. And gambling though fun for some is pure addiction for others.
The female cast is equally exciting, Teresa Avia Lim (playing Judy Chen), Ito Aghayere (Jacqueline Blount) and Miriam Silverman (Amy Merkin) bring a refreshing diversity to the stage, not only in their ethnicity but in their written characters that explore how a female response to money is not entirely different to the men - again, reiterating that money surrenders to no one. Each of these women highlight the different chapters of life, Lim a young mind searching for the truth while fighting the urge to fall prey to the wealthy men that surround her, Aghayere represents the tenacity and tact a woman needs to climb the corporate ladder while Silverman tries to keep her nest ever cushioned for her newborn child.
As I left the sophisticated Vivian Beaumont theatre at the Lincoln Center, I felt inspired to tap into the abundant wealth sold by the American Dream and then equally curious as to why we are all so quick to feel the need to always have more. Perhaps we have lost our faith in something after all, something that may be bigger than money after all. One thing I was certain about was that my dollars had been well spent on this production!
View our show pages for more information about Junk, Vivian Beaumont Theater.
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