Theater Review: La Jolla Playhouse’s ‘JUNK: The Golden Age of Debt’ worth a bundle of life lessons



Among all the honest and knowledgeable financial traders in America, there are greedy wolves waiting in the background to pounce and seduce investors into their schemes. La Jolla Playhouse’s world premiere of “Junk: The Golden Age of Debt,” by Ayad Akhtar and directed by Doug Hughes, tackles the topic with intrigue and humor.

It’s 1985 and the wolves are out there to scam whomever they can. Enter Robert Merkin (Josh Cooke) shadowing a real-life former financier and philanthropist who used investors to take over a devalued conglomerate and then maneuver the stock through junk bonds. Cooke pulls off this character with the gravitas of a push-to-the-end bond trader.

Annika Boras is great as his wife, Amy, with all the approve/don’t approve actions a wife might have about her husband’s deals. I think many of the females in the audience could identify with her character.

David Rasche as Leo Tresler, comes across as a real rascal. He’s loaded with money he’s used to help him get his way in any situation. His hope is that journalist Judy Chen (Jennifer Ikeda) — who might have some dirt on him — will except his high-dollar offer to forget what she wants to write. Ikeda stands tall in her portrayal of Chen in keeping the audience in suspense to the outcome.

The simple set design of what looks like cubicles, presents other buyers and sellers, lawyers, and even union workers who come and go – argue, pled their case, threaten and make promises they cannot keep. The drama shines a spotlight on today’s financial debt worldwide and how it has impacted almost everyone due to wavering interest rates, bad investments, political situations, capital that has not returned expectations and more.

The entire cast of “Junk” is great in creating believable characters — from simple people who want a good life, to schemers and investors whose dreams lie in the hands of those they trust.

Akhtar was a Tony Award-nominee for Broadway’s “Disgraced” and his “The Who & The What,” on stage at the Playhouse. He has certainly gone to great lengths to help playgoers understand the message in this script, as he told Playhouse development director Gabriel Greene, “I’m trying to show how the feeling/texture of the thought around money changed at a certain moment in our history, and we are living the consequences of that shift.”

IF YOU GO: ‘JUNK: The Golden Age of Debt,’ through Aug. 21, 2016 in the Mandell Weiss Theatre at La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive on the UC San Diego campus in La Jolla. Tickets from $20 at (858) 550-1010.