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A CurtainUp Review
Jordan G. Teicher
Neither preachy nor soft, Caren's play at The Flea Theater, directed by Kel Haney, examines notions of privilege, justice and friendship through the lens of race. Born of a series of conversations between the playwright and public defender Amdie Mengistu, it's bound to inspire meaningful conversations in turn.
Caren cannily packs big issues into an efficient, tightly woven narrative driven by three characters emblematic of different upbringings and attitudes. The son of a wealthy lawyer, Aaron Feldman (Austin Trow) is used to getting things his way through connections and charm, and determined to make it as a filmmaker. Iskinder Iuodoku (James Fouhey) is hard working and idealistic, an aspiring lawyer with an Ethiopian father and a white, American mother. They meet as roommates at Brown, and become fast friends. For Feldman, "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" is guiding principle, one born more out of habit than any strong sense of ideology. When he offers to have his father write Iskinder a recommendation for law school, it's merely the best way he knows to show his affection for his newfound friend.
Early in the play, Iskinder's father (Barron B. Bass) warns him: "Be wary of the man who promises you the world. For if you accept his offer, then you must carry the weight of the world on your shoulders." The rest of the play basically serves as a case study of that proverb, as Feldman's recommendation comes to haunt Iskinder years later. Feldman gets arrested while driving, and ends up making a deal with a black prisoner, Dwight Barnes (also played by Bass), to help him avoid jail time, his own end of which he fails to uphold. Iskinder ends up representing the man in court, but not before Feldman demands he give up the case in the name of friendship.
Iskinder's moral compass is thrown, and he's torn between his own sense of justice and his love-hate feelings towards Feldman. Further, caught in the middle of a conflict between privilege and disadvantage, white and black, it puts his allegiances as a person of mixed race to the test. The final scene in which all three characters finally confront one another in a locker room is explosive and heart wrenching. It's an appropriate final showcase for the talents of all three actors, members of the Flea's resident acting company, the Bats. Fouhey and Trow show the utmost commitment in a fight sequence that sends them careening to the ground. Bass, meanwhile, shows confidence and composure in his role. While the scene includes revelations that will surprise, Caren writes none of the conclusive calls of judgment that a lesser play might have made.
Indeed, up until the very end, Caren makes great pains to strike a balance between his characters' virtues and personal failings. While audience members may find themselves sympathizing with one over the other, each of them is imperfect in some way, and nobody comes away looking squeaky clean.
That's what makes The Recommendation the best type of modern morality play. It's one that makes few recommendations or condemnations, but rather poses questions that are bound to linger in the minds of audiences. It's ambiguity at its head-scratching, impervious best, just the sort of nuanced, levelheaded tale we need to navigate the complicated times in which we live.