The Recommendation by Jonathen Caren is currently in production at Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park Road, Chicago through September 22, 2019 in a retrofitted deeply “immersive theater” style that has become emblematic of the Playhouse’s performances. It’s a tricky and highly organized mode of presentation in which the audience members (34 is the limit per event) are ushered about the theater into 10 different settings, brilliantly designed by Lauren Nigri, accompanied by Playhouse staff, who also offer refreshment (with and sans alcohol, your choice) and snacks.
The technique brings the audience up close and actually inside the play, sometimes right up against one of the 3 actors, and inside their eye-contact space. This is a very smart piece, tautly directed by Jonathan Wilson, about the life-deadening effects of insider influence and connections which open the doors for everything from educational, social and business opportunities, to clubs, and even to jail cells and safety within them.
The play opens with 2 roommates meeting at Brown University as freshman. Aaron is an obnoxious entitled brat played with truly overwhelming smarminess by Julian Hester who brags that his lawyer father ostensibly gets him (and others) recommendations that grease his way into every level of advancement and achievement. Iskinder, played with a perfect blend of believability and maturity by Michael Aaron Pogue, is the pot-pushing son of a Nigerian father/white American mother who benefits from Aaron’s dad’s largesse when he secures entrance to UCLA law school and ultimately to a top-tier firm. Iskinder is conflicted about accepting this greasing of the skids of his career, but accept it he does, until he’s confronted with a much more significant moral dilemma when Aaron leans on him for payback.
After Aaron’s been arrested for driving on a suspended license and taken to the local jail, he meets repeat offender Dwight, played with astonishing subtlety and caged-animal sensuality by Brian Keys, who seems at first to be wacky, but is- in an ironic twist- as well connected within the prison world as Aaron’s daddy is within the legal world. Dwight scares Aaron witless with tales of what could happen to him in prison and Aaron offers his dad’s representation in exchange for protection. Loose-lips Aaron also confesses a hitherto secret crime of his to Dwight. Of course, once Aaron is bonded out by his folks, he forgets and later deliberately renegs on his promise.
The plot thickens when Iskinder becomes Dwight’s pro bono lawyer. Without revealing any further plot twists, so as not to spoil the impact of the story, suffice to say that what goes around comes around, for all 3 of the male principals. The action takes place not just in different areas of the theater, but on different levels of awareness, as Iskinder, doubling as the play’s narrator, talks directly to the audience, revealing his internal conflicts, cross-purposes and listens to the wise counsel of his own father, intoned from offstage.
This is more than a cautionary tale about the effects of unfair advantage upon mores and personal morals; it is also a demonstration of the effects of parenting upon the inner life of progeny. Iskinder’s moral development was in place long before he met Aaron, who- like many another offspring of the self-made- fails to individuate or to find success. The plot is convoluted, yet the demands made upon the audience to move about as part of the scenery actually add to its plausibility. Finally, the questions raised for all of us by the current college admissions bribery scandal make the issues raised here very timely indeed.
All photos by Michael Brosilow