Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Akhtar's overarching theme is how money became the motivating force in U.S. business: the leveraged buyout, using debt as a commodity in taking over a business; company-saving "white knights" and takeover-stopping "poison pills"; and the deployment of high-risk, high-reward investments ("junk bonds"). Director Jackie Maxwell commands a large cast on Misha Kachman's minimalist set in the Fichandler Stage at Arena Stage in Washington, DC.
While financial journalist Judy Chen (Nancy Sun) provides occasional commentary, the center of Junk is Robert Merkin (Thomas Keegan), a Beverly Hills-based financial boss making a move away from junk and into the mainstream. With Merkin's support, small-time player Israel Peterman (Jonathan David Martin) is determined to acquire a family-run steel company owned by Thomas Everson Jr. (Edward Gero).
As on a chessboard, each piece has a role, even if their alliances are in question. Merkin knows how to pressure investor Murray Lefkowitz (Michael Russotto) to keep the money faucet open; engages in off-the-books activity with Boris Pronsky (Elan Zafir); and battles Wall Street traditionalist Leo Tresler (David Andrew Macdonald), who is taking a personal interest in reporter Judy's career. (Part of Akhtar's history lesson is that Wall Street at the time had no interest in "outsiders" like Jews or people of color. The upstarts of the 1980s may have broken laws, but they also broke into the mainstream and changed the focus of business from consumers and employees to investors.)
While Keegan gives a dynamic performance as a man building the future, several other cast members provide crisp counterpoints: Gero, as Everson, finding that caring about his employees makes him a dinosaur in business; Macdonald, as a man who isn't prepared to lose his pre-eminent position in finance to some kid from California; Zafir, as Pronsky, rough-edged but proud and defiant despite everything; and Lise Bruneau as Gero's longtime financial advisor.