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Theater review: 'The Recommendation' at the Old Globe

January 31, 2012 |  6:00 pm

The Recommendation

Brentwood, Harvard-Westlake, Brown University, Hollywood apprenticeships — Aaron Feldman has had a golden start to life, and there’s every indication that the future will be just as gloriously posh for this would-be filmmaker.

When Aaron (played by Evan Todd with a curious mix of cockiness and whimper) makes his grand entrance in Jonathan Caren’s fidgety drama “The Recommendation,” now having its world premiere at the Old Globe, he is bathed in light and strutting around without his shirt. Yes, he even has 6-pack abs.

What a lucky guy, you find yourself thinking. Sure hope this is an old-fashioned tragedy! 

Actually, it’s a tale of friendship between two young men of vastly different backgrounds. Iskinder (Brandon Gill), known as Izzy, is the son of an Ethiopian immigrant. A pre-law student who doesn’t want to let his sacrificing father down, he hits the jackpot when Aaron is assigned his roommate at Brown and instantly the world of privilege (courtside Lakers seats included) opens up to him.

Izzy serves as narrator, whisking us through his undergraduate years with Aaron and then focusing on their time together on the West Coast after Aaron’s father helps him get into UCLA’s law school and Aaron lands a deluxe assistant job with a film executive. This is one of those fantasy positions that require much house-sitting by the pool with a script in one hand and a beer in the other. Of course, Aaron is unfailingly generous to Izzy. But in sharing the good life with his best friend, is he also exposing him to the corrupting influence of wealth?

Integrity has a way of falling by the wayside when expensive sports cars and flashy suits become the priority. But after losing a fancy job out of law school, Izzy is determined to give back. He offers his legal services to Dwight (Jimonn Cole), a smooth-talking African American con man with a hair-trigger temper whom Aaron met when he was briefly sent to prison after a routine traffic stop. (Rich kids apparently don’t feel the need to register their cars.)

Aaron, however, doesn’t want Izzy to have anything to do with Dwight, having confessed to him a crime that wasn’t the reason he was put in jail. How this complicated saga plays out is a lesson not just in class warfare but also in the furtive resentment that’s born from personal favors. No one likes to be in anyone’s debt, but can generosity lead indirectly to violence?

The plot of Caren’s play has more twists than an episode of “Downton Abbey,” and they’re not always as credibly pulled off, which is saying something. A graduate of Juilliard’s playwriting program, Caren commits the novice’s mistake of letting his big themes dictate the course of dramatic events, regardless of plausibility. On the positive side, he seems alert to the contradictions of character that can make ethical dilemmas so psychologically compelling.

The production, directed by the fast-rising British director Jonathan Munby on a spare industrial set designed by Alexander Dodge and dynamically lighted by Philip S. Rosenberg, is sleek and vigorous but not always especially convincing. For the staging to be fully effective, the script would have to be tightened and revised.

The three cast members, who are also Juilliard grads, are certainly committed to realizing the characters as written. But this is an instance in which a more independent interpretation might have been preferable.

Todd’s Aaron knows only two modes — blustering and whining. His charisma is touted, but the audience must accept this as an article of faith. More often than not, he’s just insufferable.

Izzy appears to be the play’s protagonist, but Gill has trouble sorting out the role’s many wrinkles and his character ends up seeming almost as sketchy as Cole’s Dwight. The most that can be said is that racial clichés are strenuously avoided.

Let’s consider “The Recommendation” a promise of future talent. The groundwork, however, is just being laid.

RELATED:

More theater reviews in the Los Angeles Times

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Critic's Notebook: When going from stage to screen, things change in between

-- Charles McNulty, reporting from San Diego

twitter.com\charlesmcnulty

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com 

"The Recommendation,"The Old Globe, Balboa Park, San Diego. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays Ends. Feb. 26. Tickets start at $29 (619) 234-5623 or www.TheOldGlobe.org
Running time: 2 hours


Photo: Evan Todd and Brandon Gill in “The Recommendation.” Credit: Henry DiRocco 

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