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THEATER REVIEW The Recommendation
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2019-07-30

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Playwright: Jonathan Caren

At: Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park Rd. Tickets: WindyCityPlayhouse.com and 773-891-8985; $80-$100 ( includes food, etc. ). Runs through: Sept. 22

Don't be too quick to assign a genre to Jonathan Caren's play, lest its subsequent paradigm shifts give you whiplash, further exacerbated by the production's quirky staging ( more about that later ).

We begin with Ivy League-college roommates Iskinder "Izzy" Iodouku and Aaron Feldman. Izzy is a mixed-race first-generation freshie with a stellar grade point average, who aspires to be a public defender, but is not above peddling weed to augment his scholarship stipend. Aaron is a privileged WASP adept at bartering his extensive filial and social advantages. Izzy soon finds himself embarking on a lucrative career at an elite law firm, while his benefactor pursues Hollywood dreams. Their idyllic apple cart is upset when a driving violation briefly lands Aaron in a police station holding cell, where his fear of fellow inmate Dwight leads him to make promises it will remain for Izzy to keep.

So, is the moral of this story that, in a dog-eat-dog world, you can't trust rich white preppies/poor Black jailbirds/anybody? Is it a lesson in making the most of the cards you're dealt? Is Aaron a remorseless shitheel, or was he just raised in a bubble? Is Dwight crazy, or just taking refuge in fantasies born of despair? Is this a parable of the fight for Izzy's soul, a tragedy of guilt and nemesis, a study in male-bonding rituals or a Tarentino-esque thriller?

As you contemplate those questions, you will also be eating, drinking and walking. The huge expanse of the Windy City Playhouse auditorium, you see, allows scenic designer Lauren Nigri to construct a scale-model maze of interconnected rooms through which we are guided to assume the roles of ambient objects/bystanders for each episode—duties encompassing voluntary consumption of poolside beers, saki-bar snacks or spa-sauna cucumber water.

The challenge to actors operating within this environment is greater than simply making eye contact ( or not ) with audience members seated inches away on a spartan dormitory cot. Previous experiments in "immersive" technique have centered on comedies, but if Caren's reliance on dramatic suspense arising from subjective perception is to escape reduction to mere stunt-show gimmickry, its personae must retain the ambiguity inherent therein.

To accomplish this difficult task, director Jonathan Wilson has recruited deep-delving players Brian Keys, Julian Hester and Michael Aaron Pogue, who never waver in their focus, whether addressing lobby spectators face-to-face in character to launch the narrative action or clashing in physical combat, clad only steam-room towels, for the final violent reckoning.


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