THE RECOMMENDATION Explores Access @ Windy City Playhouse

3.5 stars out of 4

In some ways, the Windy City Playhouse immersive Chicago premiere of Jonathan Caren’s The Recommendation is like Aaron Feldman, one of its protagonists: charming, beguiling, offering gifts in exchange for good will, even as one starts to question what, really, does it want? Under Artistic Director Amy Rubenstein, who collaborated on the concept for this production with Caren, Windy City Playhouse is realizing the advantages of a flexible space in shaping the experience of the audience, and this production deepens this commitment, mostly successfully. In Caren, an alumnus of Vassar and Julliard, with theater and Hollywood writing credentials, they have recognized a writer with a clear sense of the issues he wants to explore, and, as the dialogue he has written for the two college roommates whose lives become intertwined in a series of favors, promises and recommendations demonstrates, the ability to capture verbal worlds with humor and truth. This honest reflection on the worlds he is familiar with is a strength of his re-tooled 2012 play, though he is not as successful when venturing beyond the familiar, as he must along with his characters.  It also seems that Caren is not quite sure about what he wants to say about privilege or obligation, which results in an uneven play and characters that border on stereotypical, and sometimes cross the line. Jonathan Wilson’s production, which places the audience in the same spaces as the characters, lends a confidential intimacy to the set-up, which invites empathy, but also reveals some of the unraveling seams of the plot, especially in the second act. Nevertheless, the questions about entitlement and responsibility that the play raises, and the complicity with them that the staging implies, make for a worthy and compelling theatrical experience.

The device of having the audience walk from one location to another (including a dorm room, a jail cell, a swank restaurant and a sauna), many with site-specific drinks or snacks, adds to the running time of a play that already suffers from some overwritten stretches, but the attention to detail in the design, particularly Lauren Nigri’s puzzle-box set and the photo-perfect props and set dressing provided by Caitlin McCarthy, viscerally connects the audience to the worlds that the characters inhabit—and results in an experience that is shaped by what each spectator brings to it. While the loss of momentum can be frustrating, the payoff is worth the extra time. Though the set anchors the worlds of the play, the whole design team realizes the illusion. Lighting designer Jason Lynch subtly focuses attention on the actors, while naturalistically capturing the warmth of some spaces and harshness of others. Sound designer Tony Bruno provides a soundtrack that mirrors the coming of age stories portrayed, the ambience of parties, dinners and holding cells, as well as the voiceovers that occasionally punctuate the action. Costume designer Casey Woods effectively shows the growth (and lack thereof) and transitions that the characters undergo over the decade or so of the play’s action, from collegiate casual to corporate power suits and Hollywood hanger-on; the costumes reflect the privilege of being able to choose one’s attire versus having to accede to societal mores or compulsory uniforms. Finally, fight choreographer Wesley Daniel effectively captures the tension and danger of the few physical confrontations in enclosed environments.

Besides creating the immersive world of the play, director Jonathan Wilson has found a trio of actors that bring to life the characters of the play, even when some of the dialogue and situations veer into the contrived. The narrator, Iskinder Iodouku, an American with an Ethiopian immigrant father, introduces himself first as a pre-law student. His misgivings about the privilege conferred on him through his association with his college roommate drive the plot of the play. Iskinder is accustomed to being self-reliant, and to creating opportunities both through giving back to the community and an entrepreneurial spirit. This spirit appeals immediately to the teenage Aaron Feldman, “smart, privileged, and white as the sky is when you die,” who is assigned to be Iskinder’s roommate at Brown. By the time we enter their dorm room, we have already been introduced to both young men by Iskinder, who channels his father’s platitude’s and guides us through some of the details of Aaron’s charmed childhood. It is clear that Iskinder is both jealous of Aaron and drawn to what he has to offer. Michael Aaron Pogue effectively traces Iskinder’s journey from starstruck freshman, to self-aware law student, to successful lawyer, with the exuberance of youth giving way to the weight of responsibility of a married family man, and the consciousness of the price of success (and who has access to it). Pogue’s measured portrayal works, as it makes sense of the choices his character makes: to accept Feldman’s occasional friendly offers of help, to embark on a lucrative corporate law career rather than becoming the public defender he wanted to become as an idealistic student, and finally, to reach for redemption by helping the man who helped his best friend—a decision that is not met with the response he expects. Pogue excels at drawing a compelling character who too often chooses not to choose. As Aaron Feldman, the golden child whose background leaves him with no connection to what most people would term the “real world,” Julian Hester embodies the situational power that his privileged upbringing bestows. He is glibly charming and supremely confident when he is manipulating the social transactions of his world and with connections that give him entrance to the schools, concerts and clubs of his choice. He easily endears himself to the audience and Iskinder. Hester also captures Aaron’s discomfiture as soon as he finds himself temporarily cut off from his safety net, and the growing malaise that he feels as his dreams are not fulfilled, not because he doesn’t have the connections, but because he simply does not have what it takes, and a past that has been successfully buried except for one person who has no stake in helping him. That person is Dwight Barnes, who protects Aaron when he finds himself briefly in jail due to a routine traffic stop and bad timing. Dwight Barnes is an ex-con in trouble with the law again, for transgressions that are comparable to those we see Aaron (and Iskinder) committing, but without their blessed circumstances. Despite his background, Dwight is trying to get on the right path, and his encounter with Aaron offers him—he thinks—the opportunity for a fresh start. Brian Keys brings more to the role than is on the page. He allows for just a little desperation behind the jailhouse bluster and shows the tenuousness of his hard-earned path to redemption. Keys’s performance draws the parallels between his struggles for success, and the pitfalls he encounters, and those of Aaron and Iskinder, making for an awkward but thought-provoking final act.

Jonathan Caren’s The Recommendation touches on many issues that are currently in the headlines: who gets admitted to the top schools, who has access to the highest echelons of institutions, inequities in opportunity and justice. This production, by placing the audience in the rooms where these issues play out forces an examination of where one fits into the hierarchy—a self-reflection that may be clearer than what Caren has written for his characters. Ultimately, the play is about an unlikely friendship and the dynamics of friendship. The big issue might be what does the individual owe society, but what Caren explores most effectively is what do we owe our friends, if anything. With powerful performances by Michael Aaron Pogue as the irresolute Iskinder, Julian Hester as the overprivileged Aaron, and Brian Keys as Dwight Barnes, whose only blessing is that he knows where he stands, in an explosive and immersive staging by Jonathan Wilson, The Recommendation offers plenty to discuss. Despite plot contrivances that threaten to swamp the characters, the actors manage to generate empathy and interest, and the dialogue propels the audience into worlds that may or may not evoke a twinge of recognition. Windy City Playhouse once again manages to create an experience that places the audience behind the fourth wall, which proves a powerful vantage point for Caren’s flawed but thought-provoking play.

The Recommendation runs through September 22 at the Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park Road. Tickets cost $65-$100, depending on day of the week and performance time, and are available by calling (773) 891-8985 or visiting www.WindyCityPlayhouse.com. More information available at www.WindyCityPlayhouse.com and www.theatreinchicago.com.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Kerstin Broockmann spent years working in Chicago storefront theaters, mostly as a director, but also venturing into performing, designing lights and violence, stage management and writing/adaptation. Some of her favorite theatrical experiences include work with Azusa, Pyewacket, Rogue, A Sense of Urgency, The Strange Tree Group, Tinfish and Tripaway. She served for several years on the board of the Women’s Theater Alliance and helped coordinate the New Plays Workshop and Festival for two years, as well as editing and contributing to the WTA Newsletter for a spell. Now an AMS-Certified elementary teacher at Intercultural Montessori Language School, Kerstin’s directing work in recent years has been limited to staged readings, though she was also able to sneak in a production of Don Juan in Hell for Rogue Theater as well. A former amateur boxer, Kerstin has also written ringside reports for the blog Cyber Boxing Zone.