Jonathan Caren's unwaveringly intelligent play casts a jaundiced eye on the myth of the American meritocracy.
How did you get your current job? Doubtless, a lot of theatergoers will ask themselves that question upon leaving the New York premiere of Jonathan Caren's The Recommendation. In an electric production by The Flea Theater's resident acting company, The Bats, this unfailingly intelligent and brutally funny play takes the old saying, "It's not what you know, but whom you know," and explodes it in a conflagration of business cards and white liberal guilt.
Aaron Feldman (Austin Trow) is a socially gifted scion of the American aristocracy. His wealthy and well-connected lawyer father holds the key to a world of privilege, which just happens to take the form of a recommendation letter. Aaron decides to share this key with his pot-dealer college roommate, Iskinder Iodouko (James Fouhey), a middle-class American whose background as the son of an African immigrant father and white American mother is suspiciously similar to that of President Barack Obama. After receiving a glowing recommendation from Aaron's father, Iskinder gets into the law school of his dreams (UCLA) and skyrockets to a job at a major law firm where he spends his days defending white-collar criminals in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. But despite all his success, he wonders if this is the life he really wanted. Is he grateful for Aaron's help or secretly resentful?
Meanwhile, Aaron is arrested for driving with a suspended license and is taken to jail, where he meets Dwight Barnes (Barron B. Bass), a seemingly not-all-there (but fantastically beefy and well-connected within the prison world) repeat offender. Aaron promises to get his dad to defend Dwight if Dwight can keep Aaron safe and unraped during his stint in jail. Dwight comes through, but when Aaron is released from jail he promptly forgets his promise. Good thing Aaron has a friend like Iskinder to remember for him. Despite Aaron's pleas to stay away from Dwight, Iskinder takes on Dwight's case pro bono. The thin line between friendship and rivalry blurs as Iskinder weighs his convictions against his loyalty.
Like a millennial Salieri, Iskinder confesses to the audience his simultaneous admiration for and resentment of Aaron. Caren vividly illuminates the ambivalence felt by those who were not born into privilege, but have nonetheless felt its touch through proximity and downright luck. As the heat rises in a scene that takes place in a gym steam room, Aaron blithely states, "Everyone has to climb the ladder," as if incanting a prayer — a flimsy justification for his irresistible grace. "But first they have to get to you to get to the ladder," Iskinder retorts before wrestling Aaron to the ground while both men are clad only in white bath towels (thank you very much for that, costume designer Sydney Maresca).
Efficiently directed by Kel Haney, The Recommendation offers a compelling two hours of thought-provoking theater with very few visible resources. Caite Hevner Kemp's minimalist set of a couple of benches and a table allows this play to jump time and space with very little interruption in the flow. This is aided by Nick Solyom's utilitarian and unobtrusive lighting.
Similarly, the entire story is told with just three actors who double up on minor roles. Fouhey proves to be an engrossing narrator, although he takes some time to warm up: He rushes and muddles his lines in the early exposition before he settles into a more manageable pace later on. Trow comes across as a whiny and entitled yet real person, an impressive feat in a role that could easily become a caricature.
Bass skillfully walks an even more difficult line, having to make Dwight simultaneously menacing and relatable. His unpredictable energy and inscrutable gaze help the audience empathize with Aaron's trapped-in-a-cage-with-a-snake anxiety during the jail scenes. At the same time, his blunt and matter-of-fact delivery reveals an incredibly intelligent person trapped in the stock role of a delusional lunatic.
While The Recommendation offers an unflinching look at the institutional injustices that govern our alleged meritocracy, it has no satisfying solutions to that unfairness. Rather, it raises the question, "If you were given a hand up the ladder, wouldn't you take it?" This is a discussion best left for caffeinated post-show talkbacks.