This is a reprint of my remarks about “Junk” at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater presented on their main stage Quadracci Powerhouse during the 2018 – 2019 season. This originally appeared on my Facebook timeline on January 28, 2019!
It’s been over a week since I saw Ayad Akhtar’s Junk at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and I have procrastinated on getting this reaction written. Shame on me. This play was one of the two that I expected to be highlights of the current season. The other being August Wilson’s Two Trains Running.
The past two seasons I had seen Mr. Akhtar’s The Who & The What and Disgraced. These are both intimate plays built around struggles inherent in family, culture and religion. Well drawn characters and plots that twist unexpectedly…and no matter who is the seemed protagonist, you develop an empathy for everyone on stage. Both are true gems.
For Junk, Mr. Akhtar takes on a bigger broader slice of society. Here we see the inner machinations around Wall Street in the era of junk bonds. Instead of a small ensemble, we have 20 characters who are perfectly limned by the playwright. We hear the joy in the spoken word and the precision in language that I expected after seeing Mr. Akhtar’s previous plays. Very challenging indeed. But rather than family or culture or religion, the driving force here is greed…for every single character on stage…so you won’t come away with any empathy for any of the characters.
This play runs two hours without intermission which seemed odd to me at first. But the action is presented in little vignettes primarily presented on the empty Rep thrust stage in front of an imposing gray wall. The settings are each defined with the actors pulling out and then placing the necessary furnishings on stage…so we know if we are moving from a board room…to law office…to bedroom…or shop floor. The wall includes a number of balconies that also allow the actors to communicate within the play or allow Judy Chen to address the audience directly. But there can’t be an intermission. Each vignette adds to the storyline…adds to the stress…the plot accelerates as we go…and the playwright can’t allow you to take a breather or your anxiety level won’t match that of the action on stage at play’s end.
Rep Artistic Director Mark Clements directed this presentation. He couldn’t have done a better job of matching the actors to their characters. I never once felt that an actor didn’t quite fit or didn’t understand their relationship to the others. And he nailed the relationships in the play…he drove the action at the breakneck speed that the play required. Not a simple task given the number of scene changes and number of characters in the play.
One other difference between Junk and the other two Akhtar plays. In the earlier plays you left with some sadness but an understanding of the struggles involved. There we hope for a better future of sorts. In Junk, I left feeling distraught…that we as a society have learned nothing…and the last bit is perfect 20/20 hindsight foresight setting up the financial collapse from the housing bubble. So when I left the theater, instead of a feeling rewarded…there was just this sense of despair.
But YOU NEED TO SEE THIS PLAY!