Also see Bill's review of Dividing the Estate
Aaron Feldman (Evan Todd) and Iskinder Iudoku (Brandon Gill) meet as roommates at Brown University, an Ivy League institution that caters more to creativity than to elites. Aaron is from Los Angeles and epitomizes "dude" culture. He wants to become a filmmaker. "Izzy" is from Charlottesville, Virginia, home of the University of Virginia and politically a blue haven in a mostly red area. At the urging of his wise but demanding Ethiopian father, Izzy vows to become a lawyer so he can help people in need.
Aaron and Izzy become friends, and both move to Los Angeles after college. Izzy, whose academic record is top-rate, enrolls at UCLA Law School. Aaron's father, a prominent Los Angeles lawyer, writes Izzy a letter of recommendation. Izzy passes the difficult California bar exam on the first try and starts work at a white shoe law firm. Aaron's charm and good looks allow him to get a foot in the door in Hollywood, and he works his way up to being a producer's assistant. Now, if he could only get a script he'd written in front of someone who had connections to get it produced ...
Crisis hits when Aaron is stopped for a minor traffic violation and then arrested because there is an outstanding warrant on his record. Taken to a holding cell, Aaron encounters Dwight Barnes (Jimonn Cole), a young man with a big story and a knack for getting people like Aaron to open up and reveal incriminating information. Aaron promises to help Dwight in the heat of the moment, but then reneges on that promise once he is released. It is Izzy who follows through with the assistance, and when Dwight is released, Izzy writes him a fateful letter of recommendation that allows Dwight to confront Aaron.
Though Mr. Caren is young, he is far from inexperienced as a writer. He has a knack for reproducing how people in their twenties talk, and a good deal of the first act is funny, bordering on hilarious. But, he doesn't seem to know quite what he wants this play to be. His idea of trying to understand friendships among dissimilar people is a good one, but that's not how the play develops. The title of the play implies that favors people do for one another somehow conspire to designate who is worthy of upward mobility, as well as to keep downwardly mobile individuals in their place. A program essay that focuses on difficulties people of color have in obtaining good jobs reinforces this point.
There are too many holes in the play's relentless second act march toward dismantling societal hegemony to make such a plot through-line hold. Many recommendations have little to no influence on the hiring process, and even when a recommendation can open a door, the upwardly mobile individual usually must perform at or above expectations to keep the door from closing again. And, the play's climax seems to rely on Izzy's underlying resentments of white privilege, while the script's connections to those resentments are set up tenuously at best.
The Globe has hired Jonathan Munby, a quickly rising young British director, to stage The Recommendation. He does so with great precision and verve on a set (by Alexander Dodge) that looks a bit like a boxing ring. Philip S. Rosenberg's stark but effective lighting, Linda Cho's costumes, and Lindsay Jones' original music and sound design all register as positives.
The three cast members plus Mr. Caren are Julliard alumni (and I wonder if any among them wrote a recommendation for any of the others). As Izzy, Mr. Gill wins the audience's hearts, if not their minds, with a low key but likeable characterization of a mixed-culture young man who, at heart, feels he doesn't fit in anywhere. Mr. Cole gets the most underwritten role and chooses to play Dwight as a sociopath, a choice that works, except when it's undermined by the script. Mr. Todd's character is essentially a coward masquerading as a confident, if self-absorbed, twenty-something. Mr. Todd has the masquerade down perfectly; his cowardice leaves something to be desired.
I hope that Mr. Caren will not consider The Recommendation to be complete. There are a lot of good ideas here, but conceptual and writing work remains if the play is to become the kind of layered commentary that I think its writer intends.
Through February 26, 2012 at The Old Globe, which is located in San Diego's Balboa Park at 1363 Old Globe Way. Tickets ($29 - $69) are available by calling (619) 23-GLOBE or by visiting www.oldglobe.org.
The Recommendation, by Jonathan Caren. Directed by Jonathan Munby, with Alexander Dodge (Scenic Design), Linda Cho (Costume Design), Erick Sundquist (Associate Costume Design), Philip S. Rosenberg (Lighting Design), Lindsay Jones (Original Music and Sound Design), Calleri Casting (Casting) and Diana Moser (Stage Manager).
The cast includes Jimonn Cole (Dwight Barnes), Brandon Gill (Iskinder Iudoku) and Evan Todd (Aaron Feldman).
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