The Recommendation: Theater Review

The Recommendation -- H 2014
Dean Cechvala
This invigorating examination of class, race and the uneasy intimacies of male friendship may overstay its inspiration, but nevertheless presents voices to be reckoned with. 

A privileged aspiring movie director -- Brentwood-raised, Harvard-Westlake-educated -- finds his morality tested through his friendship with the son of an Ethiopian immigrant.

IAMA Theatre Company returns from its off-Broadway run of two recent productions without breaking stride, with yet another robustly contemporary offering, again characterized by distinctively fresh language. The aspiring son of an Ethiopian immigrant father, Iskinder (Brandon Scott), finds himself simultaneously charmed, fascinated and resentful of his freshman dorm roommate at Brown, Brentwood-raised Feldman (Adam Shapiro), who represents a privileged ease in a connected world characterized by the power of the "recommendation." They become fast buddies, and Feldman has his lawyer father assist Iskinder's entrance into UCLA Law School, while he returns home to pay his dues as a production company assistant with ambitions to make his own movies as the bedazzled Iskinder follows him.

Then Feldman is arrested after a traffic stop, and when his mother fails to show up to make his bail, he spends a harrowing weekend in the County lockup, where he requires the protection of the charismatic hustler Dwight (Malcolm Barrett), a victim of harsher circumstance than the panicked Feldman. In return, Feldman promises to secure Dwight legal help, only to renege on his moral debt upon his release. Dwight is unjustly sent up to San Quentin, while Feldman gets his crack at directing and Iskinder marries his college sweetheart and decides that the lure of a large firm income is greater than his own commitments to pursuing justice.

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Pertinent issues of affirmative action and heedless entitlement, of the corrosive anger of gratitude, and of the intricate web of personal and moral obligations among men percolate throughout the work. It can sometimes be a rickety plot, reliant on willful contrivance, yet for most of its length, The Recommendation dazzles with its exhilarating cascades of rapid-fire narration by Scott and jabbing, bobbing and weaving dialogue. Playwright Jonathan Caren gets us drunk on the words without losing his own head. Thoughtful, often trenchant, his insights are subtle even when the action may be less so, and the first act in particular sizzles with heightened, unforced rhetoric that the players spew with apparent effortlessness, giddy with their fluency of expression and the peculiar beats of their individual intellects. On sheer verbal momentum alone, the play entices us into the characters' inner lives even while remaining resolutely on the behavioral surfaces of male interactions. They are plausibly charismatic, less real than persuasively realistic, and their social quandaries and masked insecurities feel palpable and honest, however theatricalized.

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The second act flags significantly, as points are repeated to reduced impact, and judicious excisions could maintain more momentum. Even so, the playwright has so excelled at setting up situations and propelling us toward expectations of incisive consummation that his climax, while logical, could be both more underplayed and more revelatory. Director Laura Savia has a strong command of the pulse of the piece, and the magnetic trio of actors constantly score telling moments while never breaking the well-considered arcs of their characters.

Venue: Asylum Theatre (through March 9)

Cast: Brandon Scott, Adam Shapiro, Malcolm Barrett

Director: Laura Savia

Writer: Jonathan Caren   

Set Designer: Rachel Meyers

Lighting Designer: Carolina Ortiz

Sound Designer: Jeff Gardner

Costume Design: Melissa Trn

Presented by IAMA Theatre Company