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In Ayad Akhtar's Junk, everyone has heroic moments
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series on actors and how they create their roles
If you think of Ayad Akhtar's new drama Junk at Lincoln Center Theater as a Shakespearean history play (one of its inspirations), then Israel "Izzy" Peterman is the one vying for the crown. But though he's a corporate raider ready to crush anyone who stands in his way, Matthew Rauch, the actor who plays him, insists he's not a villain. "It's actually easy to root for Izzy or lots of the other characters, even though all of them are deeply, deeply flawed," Rauch says. "Ayad has purposefully created a tragedy without a catharsis. As Doug [Hughes, the director] always preaches, 'You tend to agree with whomever has spoken last.'"
Loosely inspired by the Michael Milken junk-bond scandal of the '80s, Junk is the complex and quick-paced tale of brilliant but amoral financier Robert Merkin (Steven Pasquale) and Peterman's bid to take over foundering family business Everson Steel. But a hotshot prosecutor, an old-school equity magnate, and an inquisitive journalist threaten to derail their plans. For those who have trouble telling a bond from a stock, Junk's details may prove elusive. But its epic emotions and themes are easy to grasp, if not necessarily process. There are no straight-up heroes or villains in this saga, which is unsettling. And while Akhtar is using history to speak to today, when money is seemingly the thing that matters most, it's unclear who to blame for our predicament. Anyone who's ever gambled on the market is probably a little bit guilty -- after all, we've bought into this whole system.
Rauch is one of only three cast members who also appeared in the world premiere of Junk at La Jolla Playhouse in summer 2016, and he says it was received very differently before the presidential election. "The show played much more breezily then -- people were laughing at it," he recalls. "I think it seemed like more of a parable than a dark mirror. It's like we're living in this world that is palpably different than it was a year ago. The extraordinary upside-downness of where we are right now is quite shocking."
Another aspect of Junk that jolts: the casual racism and anti-Semitism of many characters. The Merkin-Peterman contingent are all outsiders, mostly Jewish save for their Cuban lawyer. The Everson Steel team despise them not just due to the takeover, but because of who they are. "Ayad's earlier plays [like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced] have dealt with race and identity, and it's easy to look at this play and say, this one's about money," Rauch says. "But underneath is this dark rushing river about identity politics and discrimination."
That's all simmering beneath a pivotal scene in Act I at Le Cirque, when the major players on both sides agree to meet. "It's kind of the inciting incident in the play: a little bit of setup, a prepping for battle, and the war begins," Rauch says. Since Peterman is, essentially, a usurper, Rauch initially played that scene quite aggressively. "It was very heavy-handed and, frankly, broad," he says. "And then Doug took me aside and gave me a note that has really stuck with me -- it's something I think about before I go on every night: 'There's nothing dark about Izzy. Think of him as completely optimistic.' Izzy is a true believer in the gospel of Merkin, and his optimism and his fearlessness are why Merkin picks him [as collaborator]. From the outside it's easy to be judgmental about that, but for me it's simple to play a person who believes he is doing good. I love trafficking in the likableness of him so the audience is constantly wondering, do I like this guy or do I not like this guy?"
Just like its characters, Junk is morally ambiguous. You leave not knowing what to think or how to feel -- though you'll likely be doing a lot of both. "I don't think the play is conservative or progressive, or a polemic against capitalism by any means," Rauch says. "It's designed as a think piece. Merkin's speech at the top of Act II" -- when he attacks the underlying hypocrisy and xenophobia of the America first mindset -- "Michael Milken said many of those things in the '80s and he was right! I remember struggling at first, wondering who do I root for? But there is no tragic hero. Ayad isn't offering answers; he's saying, 'Here's what we have wrought.' What's the money in your pocket but debt? It's the US government promising to pay, a consensual agreement that what you have is worth X. The creation of this device is, in some ways, a cliff we've all jumped off and we're not quite sure what's going to happen at the bottom of it."
Top image: Matthew Rauch and Steven Pasquale in Junk. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.