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Junk premiered in its writer's hometown at a time when criticizing Wall Street is as cool as the frozen-over Milwaukee River outside the Quadracci Powerhouse.

Sitting behind me at the Milwaukee premiere of Ayad Akhtar’s Junk was a middle-aged man wearing an expensive-looking blue suit with graying hair slicked smartly back. With each progressing scene, he leaned further forward, getting entrancingly sucked into a semi-nonfictional world.

“It was like a new religion,” a journalist (Rebecca Hirota) of questionable ethics says at Junk’s outset, commenting on how some men have come to regard “What else? Money.”

Junk

WHERE: The Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse, 108 E. Wells St.

WHEN: Until Feb. 17

TICKETS: $20-$50

A decade after the housing bubble popped, artistic reanalysis of how it happened has started elbowing into the mainstream. Junk, which opened at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater Jan. 18 and runs until Feb. 17, is one of the latest entries in the freshly flourishing genre of “financial thriller.” It’s also written by a Milwaukee native, whose body of work has now spanned stage, screen and print.

The one-act centers on a tactful and economically ruthless financer named Bob Merkin (Gregory Linington), a character directly inspired by real-life billionaire and junk-bond revolutionary Michael Milken – a controversial and somewhat disgraced figure in the world of big money acquisitions laypeople haven’t heard of. Milken had a hand in making Brewers Owner Mark Attanasio rich.

Throughout the play, Merkin wrestles with an insatiable desire to innovate in his chosen field, whatever the cost. Meanwhile, he’s forced to shrug off unabashed anti-Semitic stereotypes and live up to the expectations of his supportive but demanding wife (Rachel Sledd).

Sledd probably delivers the best performance in The Rep’s production by showing her character’s unshaking duality, although Linington has a habit for entrancing staredowns over business deals. The pompous Leo Tresler (Brian Mani) and the enfeebled Thomas Everson Jr. (James Ridge) epitomize the dueling Wall Street rich boy stereotypes that Akhtar doesn’t want theater-goers to forget about.

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Junk is meant to be timeless. Its script opens with an epigraph, which doesn’t get mentioned on stage:

“We would rather be ruined than changed …” — W.H. Auden

Based in the mid-‘80s, Junk acts as an overly literal precursor for the housing market collapse (a fault of the fictional Merkin and real-life Milkin), a fictionalized retelling of how the not-so-subtle shifts on Wall Street thirty years ago brought us to where we were in 2016 — when the play premiered at the University of San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse.

“I didn’t want to write a play about something that was sexy. I wanted to write about something that was really happening,” Akhtar tells me after Friday night’s Milwaukee premiere.

Before the premiere, Managing Director Chad Bauman told the audience that Junk is “one of the most ambitious” plays that the Milwaukee Rep has attempted, though one with obvious local appeal.

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Sure, pitching a play about insider trading may be a tough sell. But when the playwright is a hometown boy with a Pulitzer to his name (for 2013’s Disgraced), it was an obvious choice for the Rep. Not to mention how trendy it would be to stage a stark Wall Street portrayal.

The pacing surely was a challenge in production. As a one-act spanning more than 2 hours with scenes flying by at 90mph, the blocking has to be pretty much perfect — and it is, although there’s nothing too extravagant.

The sets are simple, although the staircase backdrop evokes an M.C. Escher labyrinth. And the sound design shines when it’s called upon, primarily through echoes in a Deep Throat-esque parking garage.

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The audience’s only chances at moral redemption come from a journalist who becomes enamored by yachts and dollar signs, and a failing businessman who can’t quite save his father’s legacy when he’s outsmarted by the money-grubbers. (The audience doesn’t have many chances at moral redemption, really. That may be Akhtar’s point.)

Junk is portrayed like it’s a true story, one where you have to Google the characters’ names after to confirm they didn’t actually exist.

Akhtar would probably argue they might as well have been, and still are, real.

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