It’s all about who you know. From getting into the right college to securing the perfect post-graduate job, having connections can make all the difference...but at what cost will you use these to get ahead? This is the driving question behind Windy City Playhouse’s newest immersive offering, Jonathan Caren’s The Recommendation. While the play itself was not written to be immersive, Windy City’s bold transformation heightens the tension within the text, and the end result is a riveting production of what otherwise might have been a somewhat lackluster play.
The Windy City experience kicks off in a college dorm room, as we witness two roommates meeting for the first time. As the hard-working, driven child of an African immigrant, Iskinder (“Izzy”) Iodouku (Michael Aaron Pogue) could not be more different than the wealthy, privileged Aaron Feldman (Julian Hester). Yet Izzy quickly realizes the benefits of Feldman’s friendship--the smooth-talking, well-connected roommate helps him woo women and get into UCLA law school and, of course, sets him up with perks like lounging poolside in a Hollywood filmmaker’s backyard. But as time passes, Izzy recognizes more and more the downsides of their friendship, leading to a dramatic confrontation that asks challenging questions about class, power, and privilege.
And Caren’s play certainly succeeds in putting audiences in a position where they’re face to face with these daunting realities. From the play’s beginning (“Everyone who is anyone knows someone like Feldman”), we’re set up to identify with Izzy and the ethical dilemmas he’ll encounter, and this trajectory continues as the play, and the friendship at its center, develop further. But even with a two hour running time (lengthened to 2.5 at Windy City), the script doesn’t quite build up enough to reach its dramatic conclusion. It felt as if the final scene had been written first, and the rest of the play developed to get there (but didn’t quite make it).
Thankfully, Windy City’s immersive approach makes up for some of this gap. Certain scenes, most notably Feldman’s first reckoning with what it means to not hold all the cards when he spends a night in prison, are heightened drastically by placing the audience and characters side by side. The tension in the jail cell scenes in particular were palpable, especially coupled with the riveting, powerful performance of Brian Keys as Dwight Barnes.
As their third immersive production following the explosive (and much deserved) success of their hit Southern Gothic, The Recommendation can be added to the list of technical triumphs at Windy City. The play’s reimagining by Director Jonathan Wilson (and Artistic Director Amy Rubenstein) and the incredible scenic design by Lauren Nigri take Caren’s text to a new level, one well worth experiencing. (Emily Schmidt)
The Recommendation continues at Windy City Playhouse through Sept 22. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.
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