Evan Todd as Aaron and Brandon Gill as Iskinder in the Old Globe’s Recommendation
Aaron Feldman’s so connected that when he sits by the pool and the beer runs out, he whines: “No one has texted me in, like, AN HOUR!”
He lives in Brentwood, his father’s a big-time lawyer. As his college roommate Iskinder says, Aaron’s “smart, privileged, and white as the sky when you die.” He’s so entitled, he’s exempt. He’ll never have to worry about anything, ever, world without end.
Iskinder will. He’s every bit as smart as Aaron (and more cagy, funding his education at Brown University by dealing ganja). But his father’s an immigrant from Ethiopia who married a white woman. And Iskinder finds himself caught between his father’s sturdy ethics and the slippery economic ladder he longs to climb. His name means “man’s defender,” but the doors to his future won’t open without help — without, as the title of Jonathan Caren’s play suggests, a Recommendation.
So, where could Aaron go that he wouldn’t be connected? As in David Mamet’s Edmund, the playwright flips Aaron. He winds up in a holding cell. Cut off from all lifelines, including his father, who refuses to bail him out, Aaron has no social network. He shares the cell with Dwight Barnes, an African-American as hooked-up behind bars as Aaron is outside.
Aaron got a birthday call from hockey hall-of-famer Wayne Gretzky. Dwight claims to know basketball star Dwayne Wade.
When moved to county jail, they make a pact. Dwight will protect Aaron from harm. In turn, Aaron will work to have Dwight released. Once outside, however, Aaron forgets the entire affair. Or tries to.
The Recommendation has a schematic feel. Convenient things have to happen to sharpen the dilemmas (Aaron’s incarceration for a modest traffic violation, Iskinder’s choosing Barnes for pro bono defense, the trio meeting up in a sports club, naked to the waist). But while the seams in the plot still show, Caren has a terrific comic touch, and his ear for accurate, blistering dialogue is undeniable. His characters have an extra gear: when connection devolves into confrontation, they kick into overdrive.
The Old Globe has given The Recommendation the kind of tight, jazzy production often used to conceal a bad script. Director Jonathan Munby’s stage is in near-constant motion (even the scene changes are an athletic dance). Munby uses film techniques — blackouts, jump cuts — but with a difference: the actors are live and, at the intimate White Theatre, just a few feet away from the audience. The overall effect is in-the-round, theatrical immersion.
The design work is so unified, it’s as if the designers were members of a band: on sets (the floor like a metallic trampoline the size of a boxing ring), give it up for Alexander Dodge; on lights (including a flickering wave around the house), Philip S. Rosenberg; on costumes (college grunge to natty business wear), Linda Cho; and on original music and sound (including the repeated slam of a prison door), Lindsay Jones.
The performances are of a piece as well. Evan Todd’s Aaron moves from carefree-glib to dark night of the soul in inexorable stages. Jimonn Cole’s so on the mark as Dwight, he almost convinces you he knows D. Wade and that he didn’t shatter that convenience-store window.
Brandon Gill has the most difficult task. Iskinder narrates the story and is the least well-drawn character (often defined more by what he is not). Gill relates well to the audience and makes Iskinder believable anyway.
Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane bullies the audience as much as the characters. Don’t like gunfire, the N-word, homophobia, cigarette smoke, an F-bomb in almost every sentence? McDonagh gives you 90 minutes of same. It’s as if the play craves extreme reactions. Whether they’re revulsion or laughter doesn’t matter. At some point — or quite often — Behanding will jolt you.
Problem is: McDonagh has written a very funny script. He sets up a bizarre situation and then plays “Can I top this?” And does, then does again.
Carmichael lost his left hand 27 years ago. He’s been on a quest ever since: to find it and do grave bodily harm to the six idiots who lopped it off. The hand should be easy to spot: it has “H.A.T.E.” tattooed across the knuckles.
Flash forward: when Marilyn tells Mervin, receptionist at a fleabag hotel, there’s something funny about him wearing boxer shorts, he replies, “About me? Baby, I ain’t chained to a radiator in a room full of chopped-off hands with a gas can about to explode in it, insulting a guy’s boxer shorts.”
Toby, an African-American male also chained to the radiator, has a brief moment of admiration for his abuser. If Carmichael turned his fierce determination to cleaning up the environment, “m-f-ing environment’s gonna end up clean.”
Cygnet Theatre’s advertising, signs in the lobby, and preshow announcement warn patrons about what’s to come. If frontal, funhouse-warped theater — imagine Sam Shepard on 55-Hour Energy — is not your cup of tea, stay away! You will miss Jeffrey Jones’s riveting performance as Carmichael, Kelly Iverson and Vimel, as Marilyn and Toby (though both could speak a hair slower), and Mike Sears’s gem as quirky Mervyn, who has the adventure of his dreams.
Stay away if you don’t like being jolted. And, maybe the biggest one of all: this is McDonagh’s first play set in America. Audiences have squirmed and laughed at his Irish plays — The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan. So, this is what he thinks of us? ■
The Recommendation, by Jonathan Caren
Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park
Directed by Jonathan Munby: cast: Brandon Gill, Evan Todd, Jimonn Cole; scenic design, Alexander Dodge, costumes, Linda Cho, lighting, Philip S. Rosenberg, sound, Lindsay Jones
Playing through February 26; Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623
A Behanding in Spokane, by Martin McDonagh
Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town
Directed by Lisa Berger; cast: Jeffrey Jones, Kelly Iverson, Vimel, Mike Sears; set, Christopher Ward, scenic artist/props, Bonnie L. Durben, lighting, Michelle Caron, costumes, Jessica John Gercke, sound, Matt Lescault-Wood
Playing through February 19; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-337-1525. 619-337-1525