Through Sunday, Jun. 16

Kennedy Theatre, Raleigh

Junk is an ugly play. But that makes sense, as it’s set in an ugly decade: the eighties, when fundamental political and economic shifts rewrote—and, many would say, began dismantling—our country’s understanding of governance and the American social contract.

As it happens, Junk playwright Ayad Akhtar, whose incendiary drama Disgraced left theatrical scorch marks when PlayMakers Rep produced it in 2015, had good reason when he told The New York Times last year that the eighties were “where the Trump presidency began.”

We see abundant evidence in this brisk roman à clef of the rise and precipitous fall of Robert Merkin (a steely Marc LeVasseur), a self-styled junk bond king similar to Michael Milken, and stockbroker Boris Pronsky (a somber Daniel P. Wilson), patterned after Milken’s onetime collaborator Ivan Boesky.

Wholesale financial deregulation during the Reagan era led to the misconduct depicted here, as Merkin keeps brokers beholden to him to manipulate the market and send the stocks of companies he’s targeted for corporate takeover on a roller-coaster ride. Ethics, friendship, and concern for stockholders, workers, or American competition are all secondary concerns at best. In Merkin’s world, it’s the money that matters.  

Akhtar’s explication of the world of insider trading flirts at points with inside baseball, but its two-and-a-half-hour length is fully leavened by the passions of characters including embattled steel-mill owner Thomas Everson (Jeffrey Blair Cornell), federal investigator Kevin Walsh (Jade Arnold), and white-knight financier and political populist Leo Tresler (Kevin Otos).

Under Charlie Brady’s direction, an equally ugly backstory more than hints at the social dominoes that had to fall during previous generations to bring us here. The bigotry and anti-Semitism that kept Jewish financiers out of so-called “white shoe” firms until the sixties clearly fuels Merkin’s drive to not only break through ethnic barriers on the Dow Jones, but to conquer it. In the end, he’s after limitless profits and limitless revenge against historic injustices, in a world where the sins of the fathers threaten the world of their children.     

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