"It's savage and it's cruel
And it shines like destruction
Comes in like the flood
And it seems like religion
It's noble and it's brutal
It distorts and deranges
And it wrenches you up
And you're left like a zombie
And I want you
And I want you
And I want you so
It's an obsession" —The Eurythmics, 1982.
To build on an idea put forward by addict/philosopher William S. Burroughs, Junk needs swagger like a junkie needs junk. It also needs the raw, biological urgency of addiction. Though Ayad Akhtar's script is a trope-eschewing, drug-free zone compared to most mythic tales of corporate greed in the 1980's, Circuit Playhouse's earnest production joneses hard for the wild eyes and religious fervor so vividly described in the play's opening moments.
We've seen stories like Junk before. Salesmen, The Maysels Brothers 1969 documentary about door-to-door Bible peddlers was a study in the rich, racist language of predatory business in America. That inspired David Mamet's prescient real estate drama, Glengarry Glen Ross. TheWolf of Wall Street was a blurry, sweat and semen-drenched Polaroid of excess and, in a similar post-party vein, The Big Short was quirky, disruptive, and as entertaining as it was educational. On stage there's been Enron and Serious Moneyand I can't believe I almost forgot to mention Gordon Gekko's succinct "Greed is good," monologue from 1987's Wall Street, an original period artifact that's still as quotable as it ever was. But Junk, the story of game-changing junk bond king Robert Merkin, has no use for quirk, color or succinctness. It's all sprawling sincerity and shades of gray with one thing logically following another with all the intrigue and suspense of a single-file domino tumble. Junk's script leans on narration, biasing "tell" over "show," and Circuit's translation from page to stage does little to correct the imbalance.
Robert Merkin's got problems with the American media. Newspapers only collect low hanging fruit he grouses in a familiar complaint about the modern press. He's not all wrong, of course. Reporters do sometimes craft narratives with "good guys and bad guys," as surely as if they were playwrights.
“[Reporters] don’t understand how the real world works,” Merkin says, laying out Junk's primary meta-text. Calling no attention to the irony, he heroically (and accurately) points out that his brave, new system puts money into the hands of poor people and minorities who'd been shut out of the American economy. Watching Merkin invent subprime loans in prison to "help" an underpaid guard realize the "dream" of home ownership, is a helpful reminder of how big time gangsters may have better reputations back in the old neighborhood. In doing so, it also reminds us why the professional classes don't get "deplorable," values.
What all these narrative threads lack is the meaning and human context of a crashing economy and the historic loss of minority wealth that occurred when the bubble finally popped.
Akhtar's balanced, complicated treatment tells the story of a hostile takeover. Merkin, by proxy, acquires the publicly-owned Everson Steel, outfoxing the family-run corporation's third-generation management at every turn. He's going to kick the struggling steel business to the curb, killing jobs and the possibility of resurgence while focusing on pharma holdings in a weirdly boring game of economic chicken that makes it impossible for even the horn-doggiest of old-school capitalists to compete without getting themselves hooked on junk.
Junk strips away the usual trappings of business procedurals, exposing a kind of ritual addiction. Akhtar works a nonjudgmental idea that every person's the hero of his or her own story. Every man, anyway. But so many characters never develop, many more important threads go un-pulled, while other shopworn tropes emerge.
To some degree guest director Warner Crocker ignores the playwright's suggestion to avoid making Junk "an 80's play," and it wouldn't shock me if all John Hughes' movies got together and called Circuit Playhouse to ask for their soundtrack back. But, if one were to go that way, Junk's about boys club bullies, and in spite of its pivotal female roles, closer in spirit to Warrant's "Cherry Pie" than "Summer of '69." Soaring, transcendent (and sometimes bewildering) moments would nestle brilliantly into something from Glassworks. Judy Chen's sexless monologue about money giving her an orgasm might make more sense were she one of many stone-faced Robert Palmer girls, swinging to the shredding guitar samples of Tone Loc's "Wild Thing" or if all the filthy lucre flowing through Junk manifested itself in any way other than the decorative illuminated spikes on a graph-inspired set.
Speaking of, Phillip Hughen's sweet scenic design is also a bit of a one trick pony. Oh hell yes, the light-bright graph is way cool to look at, but does it help tell the story? Or does it just limit stage depth and opportunities to design something bolder than this Junk's enter/exit blocking. The isolation works for one character and Jason Gerhard is typically excellent as a terrified, easily manipulated dumb-money investor.
Extra width, not much depth.
Circuit's creative team has brought together a strong cast that should be capable of riskier, and more rewarding choices. As Merkin, Gabe Beutel-Gunn is all sincerity and righteousness, while Mark Pergolizzi's Tresler, a traditional capitalist determined to preserve the status quo at (almost) any cost, mixes entitlement and easy self-assurance with rigidity and calculated bluster. Both men need to command a room like Tony Robbins power-walking into a self-improvement revival, thumping his latest book like the King James Bible. Neither do, and no other character is developed enough to make this play tick.
This should be a good role for Beutel-Gunn, and maybe even a better role for Pergolizzi who knows a little something about how to play rock star kings threatened by gypsy killers with no respect for established rules of the game. Why does it seem like every staging choice was designed to make both the high-rolling, p-grabbing Tresler and his natural enemy so much smaller than life?
Kevin Shaw crafts the evening's most compelling character. He's completely believable as Everson, the third generation scion of American steel royalty, coming awkwardly, and much too late to an understanding that sustainability means more than shuffling numbers on a balance sheet. It means expensive modernization. It means working with communities and labor and taking the kind of profit hits Wall Street won't stand for. But he's pure milquetoast, blinkered by privilege and unprepared to face the expensive-suited barbarians hammering away at his gate.
Though the character is somewhat misused, Jeff Kirwan gets to the heart of things as a union boss scolding the rank and file for choosing self-interest over self preservation. Sadly, even in this very long play, there's not enough time to show how the steel industry changed the face of labor with its "new experimental bargaining." That broadly-adopted change in protocol took away the right to strike in favor of binding arbitration. Since you're reading this review here and are unlikely to find anything similar on the The Commercial Appeal's website, it might be helpful to understand that these same bargaining techniques enabled union -busting and the corporate delocalization of daily newspapers. So Junk's most heartfelt moment leaves the false impression of short-sighted workers availing themselves of a money grab when, for the previous 20-years union leadership had been golfing with management, while ignoring comment from the rank and file that might have sustained America's unionized industry through mechanization. Like reporters, playwrights also tell easy, incomplete stories sometimes. At least Kirwan connects with both his character, and the audience during Junk's heart-breaking aside about complicity and the common man.
While I don't really miss all the cocaine or the gratuitous sex that often accompanies these kinds of stories, I do miss the speed, clarity, chaos and manifest temptation. Junk's a fine essay, but a less than extraordinary play that creeps along with three dots left dangling for every two it connects. Even these weaknesses might be exploited by embracing another trope of the 1980's — postmodernism. Expanding on the example of shows like Enron, Junk might discover its better life as a rose-strewn toe-dance across the keys of a big baby-grand, ascending like good hair or a big black and white stairway to heaven. The thing about this american ritual, to borrow from The Eurythmics, "It's savage and it's cruel and it shines like destruction, comes in like the flood and it seems like religion. It's noble and it's brutal. It distorts and deranges. It wrenches you up, and you're left like a zombie." Junk doesn't do any of that.