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Stop-and-go staging of ‘The Recommendation’ only amplifies the play’s flaws

Frequent location changes halt the momentum of the story of a man and his privileged friend.

Michael Aaron Pogue and Julian Hester star in “The Recommendation” at Windy City Playhouse.
Michael Aaron Pogue and Julian Hester star in “The Recommendation” at Windy City Playhouse.
Michael Brosilow

“Everyone who is anyone knows someone like Feldman,” we hear near the beginning of Jonathan Caren’s play “The Recommendation.” Feldman, we’re told, is the kind of person who sails through life on a tide of unexamined privilege, connections, good looks and social graces.

“It’s not that he’s any better than the rest of us,” the narrator continues. “He just knows how to seize an opportunity. And being smart, privileged and white as the sky is when you die — the opportunities were there for the taking.” And by now you might be thinking: Ugh, yeah, I do know that guy. Or maybe, if you’re lucky, you are that guy.

The narrator is Iskinder “Izzy” Iodouku (Michael Aaron Pogue), the son of an Ethiopian immigrant father and an American-born mother. We hear, briefly, from Izzy’s father, offering his college-bound son a piece of advice: “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.”

Aaron Feldman (Julian Hester) — sometimes “Felly” to his bros — is Izzy’s assigned dormitory roommate when they both arrive for their freshman year at Brown University. And indeed, before long, this well-connected lawyer’s son is offering his new scholarship-student buddy access to a whole new world, for better or worse.

When Izzy first mentions Feldman in the play’s direct-address prologue, the young prince bursts onto the scene clad only in a towel wrapped around his waist, fresh from a shower, but nonetheless starts glad-handing and flirting with members of the audience, taking selfies, making promises of Sundance afterparties and front-row concert tickets. Along with Izzy’s concurrent descriptions, it’s a fast path to establishing the character’s easy confidence and transactional sense of socializing.

What’s likely unique to Windy City Playhouse’s staging of “The Recommendation,” which follows productions around the country since its 2012 world premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe, is that when Hester’s Feldman steps out of the shower in that towel, the actor is stepping into the theater’s lobby bar, with its floor-to-ceiling windows open to the sidewalk of Irving Park Road.

Windy City Playhouse opened in 2015, in a cavernous Albany Park storefront that was once a hardware store. What the theater lacked in its first years was a sense of artistic self; the early seasons’ programming was a curious mix of Off Broadway retreads, boulevard comedies and audience-challenging experimentalism.

In 2018, though, Windy City hit on a winning way to distinguish itself with “Southern Gothic,” an immersive production that let audience members roam through a cocktail party in 1960s Georgia, catching some scenes and missing others. It was enough of a hit that it’s still running a year and a half later, now at a second WCP location in the South Loop.

For “The Recommendation,” director Jonathan Wilson tries a slightly brand of immersive staging. Actors Pogue and Hester begin the play by joining us in the lobby, and the audience — which maxes out at 34 per performance — follows them into a new room of Lauren Nigri’s labyrinthine set design for each scene. It’s a logistically impressive accomplishment on the part of Nigri, Wilson and Windy City’s sharp run crew; the various locales include a dorm room, a poolside patio, an athletic club’s sauna and a jail cell.

It’s also dramatically wrongheaded. Unlike “Southern Gothic,” which gave individual audience members agency to create their own adventure, “The Recommendation” literally herds us through, with each scene change striking a deadly blow to narrative momentum. (The show’s running time here is a full 30 minutes longer than at the Old Globe premiere, which I’d attribute entirely to the many internal commutes.)

Brian Keys and Michael Aaron Pogue in as scene from “The Recommendation” at Windy City Playhouse.
Brian Keys and Michael Aaron Pogue in as scene from “The Recommendation” at Windy City Playhouse.
Michael Brosilow

The extended reshufflings unfortunately allow you plenty of time to ponder the narrative contrivances that a more efficient staging might have glossed over as the playwright hurtles the boys from freshman year to their early 30s. Along the way, a good word from Feldman’s dad helps get Izzy into UCLA law school, while Feldman charms his own way into the movie business.

But Feldman also hits a (fairly implausible) speed bump, spending a weekend in county lockup over a minor traffic violation. A fish out of water for the first time in his life, Feldman forges a temporary alliance with a volatile fellow prisoner, Dwight (Brian Keys), promising later legal assistance in exchange for protection. Yet once he’s released back into his comfortable life, Feldman forgets his pledge; Izzy, though, goes behind his friend’s back to take up Dwight’s cause — perhaps, it’s suggested, out of resentment toward Feldman.

All three of Caren’s characters come across as pieces on a game board, their moves driven more by the playwright’s thematic ideas than by believable human behavior. That’s despite otherwise persuasive work by each of the three actors, who bring passion to their lightly sketched roles. If we weren’t also being advanced, space by space, along with them, Caren’s script might not feel like so many random rolls of a die.

Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.