I usually wait until relatively late in the run of a production to speak with actors. Early in the process, they have had little time to explore their characters, and have correspondingly little to say. With Matthew Rauch, who plays Israel (“Izzy”) Peterman in Junk, I decided to make an exception. Rauch did the part last year at the La Jolla Playhouse, one of the few current cast members – Henry Stram and Tony Carlin are others – to reprise his assignment. While he did have much to say about Izzy and the play, he quickly, after a rehearsal this week, assured me that he wasn’t returning to the same drama.

According to Rauch, Ayad Akhtar, Junk’s author, has kept refined the piece incessantly. “Ayad writes very surgically and has changed a lot of small things,” Rauch said. “They have helped sharpen Peterman and the other characters and deepened the story. In many ways, it feels like a new play.”

Rauch, who grew up 13 blocks from Lincoln Center and majored in history at Princeton, said, “I love Izzy Peterman, even though he’s a corporate raider who’s described by Ayad as ‘intense and tenacious.’ Neither Izzy nor any of the other hard-charging characters are set up as villains. Nobody’s perfect in the play; there are no heroes. Izzy begins the play as a very intelligent ballsy boy and ends the play essentially as a king.”

Doug Hughes, the production’s director, and Rauch have had many conversations about Izzy. “We think about the character similarly,” said Rauch. “He’s both appealing and repugnant. His has a clawing ambition, a desire to eat the world. But he also has a vulnerability. Very often, characters like Izzy can have a broad pugnacity that is merely aggressive. Izzy has that, but there’s much more. The play has tremendous complexity and subtlety and I hope that over the course of the year between La Jolla and New York that my Izzy has seeped into the cracks of that complexity.”

Rauch is “extremely grateful” to be making his Lincoln Center Theater debut in Junk. “I’ve waited more than 20 years as an actor for this moment. I purposely didn’t stand on the deck, on the Beaumont stage, until the first day of tech, and when I did I was moved to tears. I grew up seeing wonderful things here – Six Degrees of SeparationArcadiaCarousel – and I certainly do not take for granted my good fortune to be here at last.”

While Rauch is effusive in his warm feelings toward this opportunity, he pointed out that Junk itself may elicit more alloyed emotions. “It’s not a liberal or conservative play,” he observed, “and that kind of thing may make a New York audience uncomfortable. They want to feel right. They want to find someone to root for, and this play doesn’t traffic in that kind of language. Doug Hughes keeps saying that one of the many wonderful things about this play is that you find yourself agreeing with the person who has just spoken. That’s very rare.”

I asked Rauch if Izzy corresponded to any other characters the actor has played. He didn’t single one out immediately. A minute later, he mentioned Macbeth, which he played in 2013 at Hartford Stage. (I saw it, and I haven’t forgotten Rauch’s full-out performance.) “Interacting with that play,” Rauch said, “can be very traumatic. It’s very dark. I do recognize in some of the characters in Junk the ambition that drives some of the characters in Macbeth.”

Before discovering his love of Shakespeare (an interest encouraged at Princeton by Professor Brian McEleney), Rauch had grown up in a family of lawyers and vaguely thought he would enter the legal profession. But he started doing plays at Princeton – Brecht’s In the Jungle of Cities was the first – and by graduation he had appeared in at least 14 productions. “When I announced to my parents that I was going to pursue acting, they were like, ‘Huh’? But I told them: ‘If I don’t try this I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.’”

Having accrued a stack of excellent credits ever since (four seasons on TV’s “Banshee” and the obligatory “Law and Order”s, plus many plum roles in regional theater and in New York), Rauch spoke about the distance between himself just out of graduate school (at the American Repertory Theater/Harvard) and himself now. “As a young actor, I wanted the cliche things that most actors want: fame and fortune and recognition. But those things can be a trap. Now I want the work. With ‘Junk’ the thing I care most about is making Ayad and Doug happy. And being a valued part of an ensemble of actors who amaze me every day.”

 

Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.