What starts out as an Odd Couple comedy about a pair of mismatched Brown University roommates develops into something considerably more edgy (and edge-of-your-seat) once a third character enters the mix in Jonathan Caren’s The Recommendation, now getting its first Los Angeles production—and its first with a SoCal-based cast—as IAMA Theatre Company introduces L.A. audiences to Caren’s multiple Scenie-winning hit, one guaranteed to keep you guessing from its exhilarating start to its suspenseful finish.
Aaron Feldman (Adam Shapiro) and Iskinder “Izzy” Iudoku (understudy Giovanni Adams) could hardly be two more different dormmates when the pair arrive as freshmen at the Ivy League college.
Aaron, with his Brentwood upbringing and empowering self-confidence 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.
As for Izzy, the son of Ethiopian immigrants represents the proverbial American dream, 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 (Malcolm Barrett), whose arrival will change the course of Aaron’s and Izzy’s lives in the most unpredictable of ways.
Since much of the enjoyment to be garnered from The Recommendation comes from being kept in the dark about its twists and turns, do not let friends or other reviews give anything more away. The less you know going in, the more you’ll delight in Caren’s roller-coaster ride of a play in its terrifically-acted Los Angeles premiere.
The Recommendation does represent a bit of a departure for IAMA Theatre Company, best known for Leslye Headland’s World Premiere series of Seven Deadly Vices plays. Not only has IAMA’s latest been done before to considerable acclaim, it features a shift in focus from Headland’s forceful female characters to a trio of equally strong male roles.
Laura Savia directs with attention to both pace (swift) and character (minutely drawn), and all three cast members deliver the goods.
The always excellent Shapiro demonstrates versatility and spark as the über-confident Feldman, whose fratboy charisma is tempered by a less attractive self-centeredness that Shapiro does not shy from revealing, making for yet another gem of a performance from the IAMA mainstay.
Opposite Shapiro, newcomer Adams makes for an instantly likeable Izzy, delivering an impressively layered performance after a grand total of three days prep and a single pre-performance run-through. Not only does Adams demonstrate a letter-perfect mastery of a bear of a part (Izzy scarcely if ever leaves the stage), his rapport with his costars suggests weeks of rehearsal bonding.
Most remarkable of all is Barrett, who gives a performance with as much going on inside as out, and so completely disappears into the loose cannon that is Dwight that it hardly matters that the actor isn’t the physically imposing thug type Caren’s script would lead you to expect. Regardless of stature or build, Barrett’s Dwight is one dude you would not want to meet in a dark alley.
(Note: All three actors demonstrate performance range by playing a second role each, most notably Adams’ drug-addled criminal and Barrett’s old-school Ethiopian dad.)
Scenic designer Rachel Myers deserves top marks for taking a wall of horizontal and vertical wooden slats and a couple of benches and turning them into the multiple locales of Caren’s script on a tiny smidgen of the Old Globe’s design budget. Melissa Trn’s character-defining outfits are all winners too, as is Carolina Ortiz’s mood-enhancing lighting design and Jeff Gardner’s suspense-building sound design.
Though it’s too late now to request a rethinking of The Recommendation’s too abrupt ending, the play having recently been published, I’m still not convinced that Caren couldn’t have come up with a better one. But no biggie given the excitement of what has come before.
Josephine Austin is stage manager. Ivey Lowe is assistant director/fight director. Josh Heine and Brian Slaten are technical directors and Amanda Knehans associate set designer. Cymbre Walk is IAMA producing director and Becca Wolff is IAMA artistic director.
About The Recommendation’s World Premiere at the Old Globe, I wrote, “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,” a prediction borne out by its New York and Los Angeles debuts.
Take my advice and see The Recommendation knowing nothing more than is revealed in this review. The less you know about what to expect, the more exhilarated you’ll be by Jonathan Caren’s excitement-packed thrill ride.
Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood.
February 23, 2014
Photos: Dean Cechvala
(Brandon Scott appears with Barrett and Shapiro in production stills.)