Thursday, September 5, 2013

88. Review of THE RECOMMENDATION (September 4, 2013)


Most of us have been in situations where someone has done us a big favor and we’ve looked forward to the opportunity to pay that favor back when the time comes. Sometimes, however, doing the right thing becomes complicated by various factors, and we find ourselves unable or unwilling to complete the one good turn routine without creating additional problems; perhaps we’ll even find a way to weasel out of the obligation, although doing so may leave us burdened with guilt. When, instead of guilt, all we feel is the selfish need to protect our own interests, no matter how the other party may suffer as a result, many might agree that we need to be punished; only then might we be in a position to seek redemption. These reflections are brought to mind by the moral dilemma informing Jonathan Caren’s problematic play, THE RECOMMENDATION, which had its premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe and is now playing at the Flea in a production featuring the theatre's resident acting company, The Bats. Regrettably, neither the narrative into which this dilemma is placed nor its performance are especially convincing.    

            Aaron Feldman (Austin Trow), a Brentwood-raised product of Los Angeles’s elite prep school, Harvard-Westlake, is the ultra-privileged son of a wealthy lawyer; his roommate at Brown is a law student, Iskinder Ioduku (James Fouhey), called Izzy, whose father is Ethiopian and his mother white, and who lacks the high-flying connections that support Aaron’s aspirations. Izzy, acting as narrator, insists that Aaron, who becomes his close friend, is extremely well liked and multiply gifted (based on what we actually see, however, much of this praise is unsupported); when Izzy applies for UCLA law school, Aaron has his father write a strong recommendation on Izzy’s behalf; while it is a bit unclear if Izzy was accepted because of the recommendation or if it was his 4.0 GPA and other attributes, when Aaron desperately needs something in return from Izzy, he’s not shy about reminding his friend of the favor. But Aaron, too, accepts a great favor from someone after he’s been arrested for a busted tail light. While Aaron is in the clink he encounters a fast-talking con man named Dwight Barnes (Barron B. Bass). Dwight, a black man, is an imaginative fabulist, speaking in rapid hip-hop rhythms, telling tales of his friendship with Steven Spielberg, and shifting from winningly charming to dangerously threatening with the speed of a heartbeat.
Austin Trow (left) and James Fouhey. Photo: Hunter Canning.

When, the same day, Dwight and Aaron are moved to a larger, more fear-inspiring facility, Dwight, a familiar figure there, uses his rep among the thugs they encounter to protect the quivering Aaron from being attacked. In the process, Aaron, who tells Dwight about a serious crime he once committed, learns that the cops aren't after him for that crime but for a license infraction, and is then released; he has, though, in return for Dwight's protection, promised to help spring Dwight when he got out. Once on the outside, Aaron chooses to do nothing. Izzy’s law career begins to blossom and Aaron evolves into a second-rate Hollywood filmmaker. When Izzy learns about Dwight's case, he decides to help him, only for Aaron to demand he drop the matter. Aaron secretly fears that Dwight will use his knowledge of Aaron’s crime against him, so he’d rather Dwight rots in jail. The morally upright Izzy, however, eventually helps Dwight get out of prison, a process that costs him his prestigious job and leads to his becoming a public defender. On Izzy’s recommendation, Dwight gets a job in Izzy and Aaron’s exclusive sports club. This, naturally, leads to a major confrontation in which all the play’s themes of guilt, responsibility, and friendship come racing to a climax of emotional and physical volatility.

Barron B. Bass (left) and Austin Trow. Photo: Hunter Canning.

Mr. Caren’s writing shows promise and some of his dialogue ripples with interest, but the play as a whole is potholed with implausibility, its production is too distractingly overwrought, and its performances are unbalanced. The notion that Aaron would go to jail and be thrown into a cell with dangerous felons for a minor traffic infraction is hard enough to swallow, but the sight of the ex-con Dwight holding the job of locker room attendant but having the run of the facilities at a top flight L.A. gym is taking things too far. Also failing to ring true are the circumstances that bring Dwight back into Aaron’s presence and a vigorously staged (by Mark Olsen) but dramaturgically unpersuasive fight between Izzy and Aaron.

James Fouhey and Barron B. Bass. Photo. Hunter Canning.

Director Kel Haney’s shoestring production in the Flea’s uncomfortable basement space (cramped metal chairs and poor ventilation) manages to move the episodic plot along smoothly enough using the sparest of sets (by Caite Hevner Kemp), but Mr. Haney's insistence on having the actors speak much of the dialogue at breakneck speed muffles the exposition and damages the credibility of the action by emphasizing its theatricality rather than its essential reality. The three actors, who add a few minor roles to their principal characters, are not untalented, but the staging’s continual emphasis on high energy weakens their believability. Most effective is Baron B. Bass as the motor-mouthed Dwight, the low man on the social totem pole who rises to a position of ultimate power as a potential redeeming angel; still, his jailhouse patter is so fast and slick it is sometimes hard to make out what he’s saying. James Fouhey, tall and slender, is reasonably effective as Izzy. Austin Trow’s Aaron, on the other hand, doesn’t come close to capturing the character’s BMOC persona. Mr. Trow is a wiry, slightly built actor; someone more physically imposing might have made the character’s decline into whiny, sniveling wimpishness have a far more dramatic effect. Admittedly, Mr. Trow has the unenviable task of playing a poorly conceived role that the playwright says is one thing and who then turns out to be something else, with neither of them being especially authentic.

After the play ended, each audience member was asked to note "yes" or "no" on a post-it to the question of whether they would write a recommendation of Dwight for a job; they were then to stick it to the appropriate side of a poster board. My theatergoing guest, thinking Dwight’s character too ambivalent to elicit a direct answer, decided to write neither yes nor no. Instead, he wrote “Who is Dwight?” and posted it directly over the string dividing the board in half. Had the question been, would you write a recommendation for this play, I believe he’d have said, “Read the above review and make up your own mind.”