To quote Friedrich Nietzsche:
“Great indebtedness does not make men grateful, but vengeful; and if a little charity is not forgotten it turns into a gnawing worm.”
If Nietzsche had seen Jonathan Caren’s “The Recommendation” at the Asylum, I could have had another quote of his to use:
“See, told ya so, didn’t I, huh? Huh?”
Iskinder (Brandon Scott), Izzie to his family, is the earnest, compassionate son of Ethiopian parents just starting his pre-law studies when he meets Feldman (Adam Shapiro). We all know a “Feldman”. The pampered offspring of some power couple, who seems to have all the connections and know all the angles, who, as they say in the south, “could spit and tomorrow there’d be a spit tree growing.”
The only thing worse than having a “Feldman” as an enemy is having one for a friend, because they destroy our illusions, not about life, but about ourselves. We all know or suspect that everyone has their price. The “Feldmans” of the world have the unpleasant habit of showing us that we have our price as well. And generally it’s been marked down.
When Feldman comes into his life as his college roommate, Izzie dreams of becoming a lawyer, of wearing the white hat and righting the wrongs of the system. Feldman, who plans on entering that other arena of muck “Hollywood”, razzle dazzles Izzie.
“Rules are like the lines on a freeway, they suggest where you should go. But you gotta cross the lines to change lanes,” Feldman argues, though he would blithely erase those lines if they impeded him in the least.
It doesn’t take long for Feldman to bring Izzie around to seeing that trading in his white hat and hooking up with the James gang pays much better. Izzie closes his Faustian deal with Feldman’s promise of having his high-prestige Beverly Hills lawyer father write Izzie a letter of Recommendation to UCLA.
From small favors do mighty resentments grow.
Things progress for the lads as they should. Izzie is at UCLA and Feldman is interning for some high-big much-a-muck producer with an ego like a Macy’s balloon. But fate drops a banana peel in Feldman’s path when, through a series of twisted events, he finds himself arrested and thrown into the bowels of county jail.
Here is an alien environment for Feldman. Like Superman finding himself under a red sun, Feldman’s powers are null and void, with his fertile imagination envisioning he’ll soon be the belle of the shower room floor, and his dance card full. When his parents refuse to post bail for him, as an object lesson, Feldman becomes unglued. But he believes he’s found his salvation in a county jail doppelganger of himself.
Dwight (Malcolm Barrett) is a trash talking black street hustler with priors hanging over him, but he knows the lay of the land. Feldman beseeches his protection, finally buying it with a promise to arrange for the legal juggernaut who is his father to look into the charges against him.
However, no sooner does the loyal Izzie come to Feldman’s aid and post bail, than his promise to his knight in jail house orange armor is forgotten.
For the second act we fast forward five years.
Feldman and Izzie now talk very little.
Mark Twain claimed, “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, then success is sure.” Well, Feldman’s first feature stands in stark contradiction to that sentiment.
Izzie, now is working for a button down law firm and on the fast track to eternal damnation. Yet somewhere the spark of scruples still flickers within his soul.
Feldman, after his release from county, told Izzie all about his experience in the “slammer“, including his arrangement with Dwight which he never honored. Izzie, feeling the pangs of conscience, convinces the big dogs of his firm that some pro bono work on his part might be of sizeable PR value, and off he goes to make good on Feldman’s broken promise.
Izzie finds Dwight serving his fifth year of an eight year sentence, and grumbling still about that white boy who left him high and dry after giving his word.
Oh-oh, trouble brewing.
Jonathan Carens has served up a great big Smiley Face of a play, but one with fangs. The play feels like a retooled hybrid of two tales plucked from the book of Genesis. The first, that of the Garden of Eden with Feldman filling in as the conniving reptile, and the second being the story of Cain and Abel and the world’s first instance of religious persecution with Izzie in the role of the murderous brother. In both tales the voice of righteous rebuke belongs to Dwight.
There are also some serious racial under currents at play here, not only addressing the issue of black and white, but also the touchier issue of African and Afro-American. It is fitting that the second act is confined to the stifling heat of a sauna room purgatory where one hopes to sweat out his sins.
Director Laura Savia has taken a good cast and made them better. She has imposed a sharp pacing on the production which serves it well, more importantly though, she has streamlined those aspects of the show which could have otherwise hindered the tempo of the piece. Barrett and Scott are excellent in the other roles of the work, and Rachel Meyers provides a set that fulfills the play’s requirements both functionally and esthetically.
That “The Recommendation” will make you laugh out loud is great. That it also makes you think is better.