Ever had a friend whom you both love and love to hate? One who feels like a parasite sucking at your soul, but whom you can’t cut loose, because, ultimately, you need them more than they need you?
A study in the complexities of friendship and class divisions, Jonathan Caren’s smart but flawed new play, The Recommendation, follows two college buddies from their days at Brown to their post-grad lives in Los Angeles. Izzy (played by James Fouhey) is the son of an Ethiopian father and a white American mother; at the play’s outset, he’s a hardworking pre-law major. Feldman (Austin Trow) is his college roommate, an aspiring filmmaker, genuine big man on campus, and paragon of oblivious privilege.
The play takes up the psychology of power and debt, particularly in the “post-racial” state of affairs fostered by the past 20 years’ worth of institutional multiculturalism. Feldman gets his dad, a high-profile attorney, to write a recommendation for Izzy’s law school application, wearing his noblesse oblige so lightly that he doesn’t even recognize it as such—though Izzy does. It’s not the only recommendation that could be the reference of the play’s title, and it isn’t the only favor that turns into a pair of golden handcuffs.
Things get serious when Feldman lands in jail after a minor traffic violation. While there, he meets repeat offender and loose cannon Dwight Barnes (Barron B. Bass), whom the play describes as starkly “black” as Feldman is “white as the sky is when you die.” (If it’s not already clear from this description, The Recommendation trades in a certain kind of moral and political allegory, which sometimes risks rehashing the very racial stereotypes it seeks to debunk.) The two craft an uneasy alliance involving a secret from Feldman’s past, one that has fateful consequences for his friendship with Izzy by the play’s end.
Caren’s script is thoughtful and shows a lot of promise, but it’s not consistently strong. It has some odd dramaturgical features, like numerous scripted moments in which the actors are directed to step off the stage and interact with spectators, the sort of thing that earned The Onion’s mockery in 2009 with the headline “Oh No, Performers Coming Into Audience.” The cast possesses a high degree of raw talent, but under Kel Haney’s direction there’s something too frantic about the pacing of the performance. Significant moments and lines of dialogue repeatedly hurry past without being allowed to land. Although it’s timely and doesn’t fail to hold its audience’s interest, it’s still hard to offer this show an unreserved recommendation.