By Mary Boyle
The 1980's saw massive changes to the US economy that we're still feeling the effects of today. "Reaganomics," the economic ideology of President Ronald Reagan, consisting of deregulation, tax cuts, and slashing social programs, caused a rash of bank closures, business bankruptcies, and the greatest stock market crash since the Great Depression, spinning the Country into a deep recession. Sound familiar? While many suffered, there were some who took advantage of the financial chaos and made millions. This is the background of Milwaukee Native and Pulitzer Prize-Winning playwright Ayad Akhtar's latest Tony-nominated play, JUNK, being performed on The Milwaukee Rep's Quadracci Powerhouse stage.
Robert Merkin (Gregory Linington) is becoming famous. To some, he's a financial wizard; to others, he is a vulture who is gaming the system by taking advantage of companies in financial failure and utilizing the buying and selling of "junk" bonds to make a fortune. An ambitious trader at an investment bank, Merkin is using businessman Israel Peterman (Demetrios Troy) to take over the struggling, third generation steel business owned by Thomas Everson Jr (James Ridge) with the help of his equally financially brilliant wife, Amy (Rachel Sledd); Murray Lefkowitz (Norman Moses), a wealthy investor; his lawyer, Raul Rivera (Justin Huen); and, a hidden string of strategically placed people, such as Boris Pronsky (Jonathan Wainwright) and Mark O' Hare (Michael Milligan), arbitrageurs who buy and sell stock when Merkin tells them to.
Everson, however, has his own investment banker, Max Cizik (Matt Daniels), and lawyer, Jackie Blount (N'Jameh Camara), and he is not going to lose control of his company without a fight. They turn to another wealthy investor, Leo Tresler (Brian Mani), to beat Merkin at his own game. Meanwhile, US Assistant Attorney Kevin Walsh (DiMonte Henning) and US Attorney Joe Addesso (Dominic Comperatore) are investigating Merkin's business practices, and Judy Chen (Rebecca Hirota), a writer, is doing an investigation of her own, hoping to capitalize on the inside story of America's new J.P. Morgan.
Directed by Mark Clements, The Rep's Artistic Director, JUNK features a talented cast, including a few of Milwaukee's finest in roles we aren't used to seeing them in. Jonathan Wainwright is best known at The Rep for his roles as Ebeneezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol, but delivers a spot-on performance as Merkin's twitchy toady, Boris. Longtime APT actor James Ridge is stunning as the struggling Everson and Matt Daniels, who many will recognize from his roles as Snoopy or Edward Tulane at First Stage, shows his serious side as Max Cizik. DiMonte Henning, who played the love-struck George Gibbs in last season's Our Town at The Rep, is a very credible US Assistant Attorney, while Norman Moses, who was Dr. Watson in last season's Holmes and Watson, was far less serious as the pushover investor, Murray Lefkowitz. Another Milwaukee favorite, Todd Denning, who was also seen in A Christmas Carol, as well as in Pippin this season at Skylight, plays three different roles throughout the production.
N'Jameh Camara, a Milwaukee native, makes an impressive Rep debut alongside Rachel Sledd, Dominic Comperatore, Michael Milligan, and an outstanding debut performance by Gregory Linington as Merkin. While not new to The Rep, APT core company member Brian Mani makes a terrific Quadracci Powerhouse debut, and Demetrios Troy, Rebecca Hirota (who appeared in Jane Eyre in the 16/17 Season), and Justin Huen (who was in last season's One House Over) make triumphant returns to The Rep stage.
Born in New York, but raised in Milwaukee, novelist and playwright Ayad Akhtar's JUNK is similar to Disgraced, which ran at The Rep during their 16/17 season, in that the characters in the play demonstrate to the audience the human element behind some of the greatest struggles of our country. Akhtar says of JUNK, "I was trying to write a play that could get its arms around what is happening in the world, as far as money goes, and the model for me were the Shakespearean histories, in terms of how to approach a big story like this. I felt if I could make the human actions clear — if you understand on a human level somebody's lying to somebody else, somebody's a double agent, somebody wants a job, somebody doesn't like Jews — these simple actions create a human through-line that's clear to audiences. Then, after that, there's whatever added dimension about finance, about death, about the nature of property, about the meaning of ownership, about the place of shareholder rights in a democracy, about the transformation of value — all those questions which are played out through the show."
Thought-provoking and fast-paced, JUNK is very much The Wolf of Wall Street for the stage; one does not need to be knowledgeable about finances in order to follow the story, but be prepared for R-rated language and the distinct feeling that history is repeating itself. Akhtar's ongoing relationship with The Rep, which will include the world premiere of a stage adaptation of his critically acclaimed novel, American Dervish, this next season is clearly a win for both parties, as well as for audiences. Milwaukee audiences are beyond lucky to be tied to, and to witness, the launching of what appears to be a very promising career.
JUNK runs through February 17th at the Quadracci Theater, located within the Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex at 108 E. Wells St. in Milwaukee. Tickets can be purchased by calling (414) 224-9490, in-person at the Box Office, or online at www.MilwaukeeRep.com.
Talks and Events
Rep-in-Depth: A pre-show conversation with a member of the cast or artistic team. Rep-in-Depth occurs approximately 45 minutes before curtain for every performance.
TalkBacks: A discussion with members of the cast and artistic team following the 8 p.m. performance on the following Wednesdays: January 23, January 30, February 6 and February 23.
Roundtable Discussion: Power & Money & Response & Resistance –
Visit the Jewish Museum Milwaukee exhibit, “Blacklist: The Hollywood Red Scare” and listen in as a roundtable of local thought leaders discuss the impact of federal funding on their work.
For more information on these events, please visit: https://www.milwaukeerep.com/Tickets--Events/Events/
About Milwaukee Repertory Theater
Milwaukee Rep is the largest performing arts organization in Wisconsin in terms of audiences served and one of the largest professional theaters in the country. Each year, The Rep welcomes up to 275,000 people at nearly 700 performances of 15 productions ranging from compelling dramas, powerful classics, new plays and full-scale musicals in its three unique performance venues – the Quadracci Powerhouse, Stiemke Studio and Stackner Cabaret. Now in its 65th Season, The Rep has gained a national reputation as an incubator of new work, an agent of community change and a forward-thinking provider of vital arts education programs. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Mark Clements and Executive Director Chad Bauman, Milwaukee Repertory Theater ignites positive change in the cultural, social, and economic vitality of its community by creating world-class theater experiences that entertain, provoke, and inspire meaningful dialogue among an audience representative of Milwaukee’s rich diversity.