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What we can learn from 'Junk,' a tale of corporate takeovers set in the 1980s

Andrew J. Friedenthal, special to the American-Statesman
Street Corner Arts' new production of "Junk." [Contributed by Street Corner Arts]

Perhaps best known for his 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Disgraced,” playwright Ayad Akhtar’s body of work covers a variety of styles and issues. While “Disgraced” was a small, tight story about the ways in which politics, identity and prejudice play out between four characters, Akhtar’s most recent work, “Junk,” is a sprawling epic about junk bonds and corporate takeovers in the 1980s.

Street Corner Arts’ new production of “Junk” — playing through March 9 on Zach Theatre’s Whisenhunt Stage — does full justice to the scope and themes of the play, weaving a complex narrative that is far more emotionally rich than one might expect from a play about economics. Indeed, though at first blush one might be tempted to compare “Junk” to Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street,” it really has more in common with “The Godfather.”

As much as it exposes the economics and politics of ‘80s corporate takeovers, “Junk” is also a story about the evolving composition of American identity. Though the play features a large swath of characters (there are 17 performers, several of whom play double roles), the central figure of the story is Robert Merkin, an economic whiz kid investor who lives by the tenant that debt is an asset. He is the mastermind behind the corporate takeover of an iconic American steel manufacturer, batting heads with the company’s owner (the son of its founder) and his old-guard corporate allies.

Where “Junk” finds its strength, though, is in the ways in which it interrogates the motivations of its complex characters. As played by Carlo Lorenzo Garcia, Merkin is a good-hearted charmer, loyal to his friends and espousing a progressive vision of improving American business through change and innovation rather than returning to the nostalgia of the past. The parallels to conversations about today’s national economy are obvious and intentional.

The genius of Garcia’s portrayal is that he makes Merkin a true believer. Though his immediate actions are certainly motivated by greed, at his core there is a deeper nobility wed to his desire to break apart the racist history of American corporations. His competitors, meanwhile — embodied with no little depth and sympathy by Joe Penrod and Michael Stuart — though they are men who want to maintain a tradition of proud, American labor, are at their core seemingly equally motivated by a deep-seated antisemitism and xenophobia against Merkin (who is Jewish) and his “ethnic” business allies.

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Director Benjamin Summers excels at getting nuanced performances from all of his actors, and as such there are no clear heroes or villains in this morally complex narrative. Mirroring this, the set itself is constantly mutating, thanks to the scene-setting sound and video design of Lowell Bartholomee as well as an ingenious central wooden desk that transforms into a bench, couch, or bed as needed. Summers keeps the play moving at a quick pace, with a mounting sense of subtle tension that highlights both the big economic ideas of the text and the smaller nuances of character.

“Junk” is much more than just a fictionalized look at 1980s corporate raiding. It is an expose of a previous era’s clash of identities as played out on the national (and global) economic stage, and the ways in which the repercussions of that battle are still played out in today’s fraught world. If you want to understand the origins of much of the coded identity politics at the core of today’s economic conversations, “Junk” is a must-see, as educational as it is entertaining.