"This is a story of kings, or what passes for kings these days. Kings then, but decked in Brooks Brothers and Brioni, enthroned in sky high castles and embroiled in battles over (what else?) money." So sets the stage of the Milwaukee Rep’s outstanding production of "Junk," which is certainly worth the investment of both your money and your time.
Featuring one of the largest casts ever on the Quadracci Powerhouse stage, this riveting tale is set in the financial world of the 1980s. For those who lived through that time – or those, like me, who were born during that time and are too young to remember – briefly recapping the historical context is beneficial for getting full enjoyment and meaning out of the play. The introduction of "Reaganomics" early in the decade brought a deep, nationwide recession; business bankruptcies dramatically increased, fraud and misconduct were rampant, and the stock market experienced some of the lowest of lows since The Great Depression.
"Junk" tells the dark and fascinating story of people wheeling and dealing within this cutthroat, high-stakes financial environment where money was like "a new religion being born." Everson Steel, a family-owned company, falls victim to two vicious camps of junk bond traders. Robert Merkin (Gregory Linington) leads "The Raiders," whose vision for the failed business involves buying the company with his associate Israel Peterman (Demetrios Troy).
But Merkin’s path to acquiring Everson Steel will not come easy thanks to Thomas Everson Jr’s (James Ridge) determination to keep his family’s operations intact. The two-hour, intermission-less saga revolves around these motivated groups, involving plenty of intrigue, FBI investigations, insider trading and corrupt deals that promise to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
There's so much, in fact, that it's easy to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the plot and the story’s unceasing action – especially if you are like me and the intricacies of the financial world can be as foreign to you as traveling to another country. In the opening moments of the performance, it felt as though if I missed a word of dialogue, I would miss an enormous amount of plot while the terminology thrown about, and the speed at which the dialogue was delivered, took a few minutes to get used to. Even Jared Mezzocchi’s impressive projection design, transforming from a Manhattan skyline one minute to the palm trees of Beverly Hills the next, added to the unrelenting action.
Yet it all seems like a perfectly logical pace in this nonstop world, and once I got used to it all – fortunately, it didn’t take long – I still found "Junk" to be one of those shows where, despite the fact that I found some concepts difficult to grasp, I knew I was watching an intriguing story played out by a remarkably talented cast.
The ensemble of "Junk" is capable and fully invested in their characters. Everyone, from the writer covering this world of industry titans to the Assistant U.S. Attorney determined to bring them down, is a pleasure to watch. But be prepared; in "Junk," you meet so many characters entering and leaving the stage throughout the show, serving their purpose to the plot and then abruptly making their exit, that an audience member may not have the time to fully get to know them.
While this may be a point of frustration with some plays, with "Junk," these quick introductions and departures make sense as another reminder that you better be quick to keep up in this cutthroat setting.
That being said, there are, of course, a few key players you do get to know and form passionate opinions about – thanks to the talent and enthusiasm of the actors who portray them. Linington effortlessly conveys cold determination in his performance as trader (or, as Time Magazine dubs him, "job killer") Robert Merkin. Even if you disagree with his morality and business ethics, you can’t help but admire his strength and expertise in what he has devoted his life to, and Linington’s skills make the character truly come alive.
The David to Merkin’s Goliath is also wonderfully presented by James Ridge. The warm and earnest (although not always honest) way he does business made it easy for me to instantly root for him, largely thanks to how Ridge plays the part. The performances of these two men in particular make it easy to fully appreciate this always engrossing story.
After what feels like a two-hour sprint, the story ends, and the audience is left satisfied yet contemplative. What lessons can I take home with me? What does this performance mean and how can it be impactful? Pulitzer Prize winning playwright (and Milwaukee native) Ayad Akhtar perhaps summarizes this best: "If I could make the human actions clear – if you understand on a human level that someone is lying to someone else, somebody’s a double agent, somebody wants a job – these simple actions create a human through-line that’s clear to audiences."
If we understand and recognize that basic line of thinking throughout the performance, the added dimensions of all of these universal and timely ideas playing out in the play's world of finance become much easier to grasp.
Impressively produced by the always remarkable Milwaukee Rep, "Junk" is a way to see how we view greed, drive and selfishness in a different setting. In other words, how we take the junk happening in our lives and in our world and respond to it.