What starts out as an Odd Couple-like comedy about a pair of mismatched Brown University roommates soon develops into something considerably more edgy (and edge-of-your-seat) in Jonathan Caren’s The Recommendation, a terrific World Premiere drama at San Diego’s Old Globe that will keep you guessing from its exhilarating start to its suspenseful finish.

Aaron Feldman (Evan Todd) and Iskinder “Izzy” Iudoku (Brandon Gill) could hardly be two more different dormmates when the pair arrive as freshmen at the Ivy League college. Aaron, with his boy-next-door good looks and gym-perfected musculature is the proverbial Golden Boy, a son of privilege with all the accompanying perks, and a popularity with co-eds that his new roomie can only marvel at. Mixed-race Izzy represents the Obama-era immigrant dream as the son of an Ethiopian father and a white American mother, arriving not quite virginal but something thereabouts at Evan’s dorm room door. (To his credit, Izzy does bring along several peanut butter jarfuls of pot, enough to seal any friendship deal, along with providing its seller ample pocket change.)

Not unexpectedly, Aaron’s popularity soon rubs off on Izzy, along with a debt of gratitude made even greater when Aaron’s dad writes him a letter of recommendation that gets the pre-law student into UCLA grad school, and from there into a cushy law firm. Meanwhile, film major Aaron uses charm, smarts, and those same family connections to set off on a more than promising writing-directing career in La La Land.

Then, in circumstances that will not even be hinted at here, a third character enters our two heroes’ lives, a young African American second-striker named Dwight Barnes (Jimonn Cole), whose arrival will change the course of Aaron’s and Izzy’s lives in the most unpredictable of ways.

Much of this reviewer’s enjoyment came from not knowing all that much about The Recommendation when I went in, more than enough reason to keep the above summarizing to the bare minimum. Don’t let friends or other reviews give anything more away. The less you know, the more you’ll delight in Caren’s roller-coaster ride of a play, particularly as brought to energetic life by its three sensational stars.

If Todd doesn’t seduce you with his looks and charm and physique (we first see Aaron in towel and nothing else), then his acting chops (both comedic and dramatic) will seal the deal. Gill too is thoroughly convincing (and equally likeable) as Izzy, a role which plays against stereotypes and allows Todd’s fellow Julliard Drama School alumnus to develop a richly multi-faceted character. As for the third side of The Recommendation’s triangle, Cole is so scarily real as Dwight that it’s only his cameo as Izzy’s Ethiopian father that reminds us that we are seeing a performance. Cole makes Dwight quite possibly the most complex character of the three, allowing the convicted felon to charm us even as we recoil from his threatening demeanor. (Both Todd and Gill get to play cameo roles too, and do so quite niftily.)

The Recommendation’s fourth star is its director Jonathan Mumby, who has not only elicited pitch-perfect performances from his three stars, but created as striking a production as you’re likely to see all year, aided and abetted by a top-notch trio of scenic, lighting, and sound designers.

Alexander Dodge sets The Recommendation’s action on a bare raised metallic square stage (think boxing ring without the ropes), onto which the three actors move metallic benches and chairs in precision moves choreographed dance-like by Tony Caligagan to sound designer Lindsay Jones’ pulsating original music. (How often is it that scene changes end up almost as exciting as the scenes they connect?) Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting design is equally striking, with a swimming pool effect that will have you oohing and aahing. Linda Cho has designed costumes (and some skimpy towels) that suit each character to perfection. Diana Moser is stage manager.

If there’s anything to quibble about, it’s that The Recommendation still seems a play in search of the right ending. I’m not all that fond of the one Caren has chosen, and wonder if it may end up reinforcing negative racial stereotypes and the fear they engender, particularly among a mostly white, mostly financially comfortable audience.

Despite this caveat, there is so much to recommend in The Recommendation that rave reviews and glowing word-of-mouth are pretty much guaranteed, as are numerous regional stagings yet to come. I went in not knowing what to expect and came out exhilarated by Jonathan Caren’s excitement-packed ride.

Old Globe Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
January 29, 2012
Photos: Henry DiRocco

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