San Diego Theater Review: THE RECOMMENDATION (The Old Globe)

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by Tony Frankel on February 8, 2012

in Theater-Regional

WHEN RECOMMENDATIONS
DON’T TURN OUT AS HOPED FOR

Aaron Feldman, the charismatic, bright, and privileged protagonist of Jonathan Caren’s promising but highly unwieldy new play The Recommendation, reminds me of an old college chum. My friend wasn’t just privileged, he was over-privileged. While I worked three jobs to support myself through college, his parents kept him well-supplied with cash and connections. My envy was tempered by the magnetism of my pal, who made you feel as if there were no other friend on the planet but you. Even though he could be incredibly lavish with his parent’s booty, he was often out of integrity, making promises he never intended to keep.

The Recommendation by Jonathan Caren – directed by Jonathan Munby – at The Old Globe in San Diego – Regional Theater Review by Tony FrankelCaren tackles some grandiose themes in his world premiere at the Old Globe (class, status, parental wealth, and connections) that perfectly elucidate the contradictory feelings I had about my friend – the same paradoxes that make for great drama. It is Caren’s unflinching examination of these themes that makes his play compelling. Unfortunately, none of them truly resonate by play’s end because the nascent playwright’s agenda got in the way of telling his tale.

The play is narrated by Aaron’s college roommate Iskinder, known as Izzy, who guides us through his friendship with Aaron – from undergraduate exploits at Brown University to Los Angeles, where most of the play takes place over a fifteen year period. We assume from the beginning that Izzy is the protagonist – he explains to us how he is torn between accepting favors and recommendations from Aaron (which will hasten Izzy’s career) and sticking to the moral advice of his Ethiopian father (who occasionally manifests himself like the ghost in Hamlet to offer some character-building words of wisdom). Once the boys take up residence in L.A. after college, Izzy (with the help of Aaron’s dad) attends UCLA’s law school and Aaron gets a cushy job as a privileged assistant to a movie mogul.

The Recommendation by Jonathan Caren – directed by Jonathan Munby – at The Old Globe in San Diego – Regional Theater Review by Tony FrankelThe dialogue, up to this point, could be very funny, with Caren employing an ear for the twenty-something patois. Izzy is shaping up to be a most sympathetic character when, jarringly, the play suddenly becomes about Aaron.

How? A routine traffic stop puts Aaron in jail, where he encounters Dwight, a big-talking, street-smart and volatile young black man. Aaron’s parents (as Izzy explains directly to the audience) decide to teach Aaron to respect the law by not putting up bail. Aaron believes he has been detained for a hit-and-run crime he committed in the past and confesses said crime to Dwight. When the two inmates are transferred to County Jail, the whiny and overwrought Aaron (at least, as played by Evan Todd) promises to help out Dwight in the future if the repeat offender protects him in jail. Dwight does indeed keep the gorgeous Aaron out of danger for the night, and Aaron is set free, his crime turning out to be an unregistered car.

The Recommendation by Jonathan Caren – directed by Jonathan Munby – at The Old Globe in San Diego – Regional Theater Review by Tony FrankelIt’s a fascinating premise: The rich, connected kid in society needs the aegis of a poor, connected criminal in the lock-up where Aaron makes a pact that will haunt him and alter his bond with Izzy. The problem is that Caren believes his protagonist to be Izzy, who turns out to be a superfluous character, even as he winds up defending Dwight pro bono, an act which terrifies Aaron, who demands that Izzy drop the case.

A series of staccato scenes prior to Aaron’s arrest suddenly becomes an insanely long jail scene with little to no exposition or character development. After that point, when Izzy narrates, it feels like Caren is commenting on the story, instead of allowing his characters to do that for him. This is when the playwright’s agenda essentially feeds his tale, when it should be the story which nourishes the agenda.

The Recommendation by Jonathan Caren – directed by Jonathan Munby – at The Old Globe in San Diego – Regional Theater Review by Tony FrankelAs Izzy, Brandon Gill is mostly unassuming, largely due to the fact that he is torn between being a full-bodied character and the narrator of a memory play. Jimonn Cole powerfully assumes the dichotomy of Dwight, who wants to do the right thing in life, but becomes victim to his anger-ridden, knee-jerk reactions. Evan Todd nails Aaron as the friendly, jocular jock, but doesn’t have a handle on the terrified side of Aaron – when he acts like a petulant 8 year-old in the overly-long jail scene, it is almost unendurable to watch.  All three actors and the playwright are graduates of the Juilliard School – did someone make a recommendation?

Up-and-coming British director Jonathan Munby stages with a youthful dynamism, made all the more energetic with Lindsay Jones’ pumped-up original music and Alexander Dodge’s metal set, which has the look of a boxing ring inside a techno dance bar (the White Theatre at the Globe is in-the-round). The meticulous scene The Recommendation by Jonathan Caren – directed by Jonathan Munby – at The Old Globe in San Diego – Regional Theater Review by Tony Frankelchanges can be attributed to Munby and Tony Caligagan (movement), but watching the actors move the steely furniture around with precision detracted from the story. Philip S. Rosenberg does some neat tricks with his lighting, from the shimmering water of a pool to a mellow sunset.

By the way, my friend became a leading actor on Broadway while I continue to remain, shall we say, career-challenged. Yet my poor friend, as charming as ever, has had nothing but horror stories about the theater world. He has discovered that connections and recommendations may get you somewhere, but once you arrive at your dream, you still have to pay the price for broken promises and continue to deal with unscrupulous people (in his case, producers). I still question why I became friends with this hypnotically irresistible person. If Jonathan Caren can fix up The Recommendation, his play will better explicate for me the murky territory about whom we befriend and why.

The Recommendation by Jonathan Caren – directed by Jonathan Munby – at The Old Globe in San Diego – Regional Theater Review by Tony Frankel

The Recommendation by Jonathan Caren – directed by Jonathan Munby – at The Old Globe in San Diego – Regional Theater Review by Tony Frankelphotos by Henry DiRocco

The Recommendation
Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre
1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park
Tues and Wed at 7; Thurs and Fri at 8;
Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7

ends on February 26, 2012
for tickets, call call 619.437.6000
or 
visit The Old Globe

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