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THEATER REVIEW: World premiere of “The Recommendation” soars at The Old Globe

Race, class, influence, money and the sometimes fragile bonds of friendship are considered from three perspectives in Jonathan Caren’s “The Recommendation,” now in its world premiere at the Old Globe’s White Theatre.

If that sounds difficult, it is, and it’s remarkable how successfully Caren has pulled this complex piece off in this, his first professional production.

Iskinder Iudoku (Brandon Gill), son of a mixed marriage (white American mother, Ethiopian father), arrives at his college dorm room with a new Jansport backpack, full of hope and middle-class aspirations – and the admonitions of his father ringing in his ears.

Soon roommate Aaron Feldman (Evan Todd) arrives. The obvious son of privilege, he strides down the aisle like an Olympic athlete taking a victory lap.

The disparity is evident even in their majors: “Felly” wants to be a filmmaker; “Izzy” has his sights on public defender law.

Feldman is free with the perks of privilege and soon Izzy (who acts as both narrator and character) finds himself both enjoying and fighting the seduction of money and influence. But he doesn’t turn down Felly’s offer to ask his father (and a high-powered Brentwood lawyer) to put it a word for him at UCLA’s law school.

The play opens with snappy, often funny dialogue, and seems to be settling into a college-age “Odd Couple” – until a chance traffic stop puts Felly into the close proximity of a third character, second-striker Dwight Barnes (Jimonn Cole) in a local holding cell (aka drunk tank). Dwight is a rock star in his own right, but the kind no one hopes to meet.

Dwight feels out the obvious misfit for, shall we say, possibilities, while regaling Felly with tales of prison life that terrify him. When Dwight assures Felly that things will not go well for him without “protection,” Felly agrees to a pact: Dwight will protect him in jail, Felly will ask his father to intervene on Dwight’s behalf when his case comes up.

Five years later, the past will come back to haunt them all, in a series of events that will test everything, including friendship, morality and integrity.

This is a spectacularly fine production; Jonathan Munby’s solid direction is the best I’ve seen in many a moon, and the show is further enhanced by magnificent production values. The movement of furniture and characters on the White’s in-the-round stage is almost a show in itself (kudos to Munby and movement director Tony Caligagan); lighting by Philip S. Rosenberg, Lindsay Jones’ original music and sound, and Linda Cho’s costumes make their own contributions.

But it’s the performances that make this play sing. Gill’s Iskinder is calm and appealing, but effectively communicates his ambivalence about his friend Feldman. Cole’s demeanor as Dwight turns on a dime – strutting, fuming and fretting – and Todd’s Feldman runs a gamut as well, from serene confidence to fear and near hysteria.

This isn’t a perfect play – there’s an unexplained job loss, and a transition or two that are less than seamless – but it is a fine one, and you’re not likely to see better direction or production values anywhere.

The details

“The Recommendation” plays through Feb. 26 at The Old Globe’s Sheryl & Harvey White Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.

Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm.

For tickets call (619) 234-5623 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.