The Flea Theater in downtown Manhattan is almost 20-years-old. It’s an institution at this point, even if its essential energy—which is also the energy of its resident theater troupe, The Bats—is still rambunctious: energetic, eager, earnest, and young. It has served as a training ground for the best young playwrights and actors in the city, and the fun of going there is in seeing talented people at the beginning of their careers. Case in point is Jonathan Caren’s The Recommendation, a play and production that exhibit the best qualities of fresh talent—as well as fresh problems that still need solving.
Izzy (James Fouhey) narrates the first part, telling us about his college friendship with spoiled rotten trust-fund brat Aaron Feldman (Austin Trow). There’s a lot of pushy talking to the audience at first, so that the play seems a little remedial and telling-not-showing, but that changes when Aaron finds himself in jail after getting pulled over for a busted taillight. His parents decide to teach him a lesson by leaving him there, and so Aaron finds himself trapped into asking for help from Dwight Barnes (Barron B. Bass), a strong-minded convict who may or may not have some mental health issues. In exchange for protection, Aaron promises Dwight he will get his father to help with Dwight’s case. In a moment of fear, he also confesses to a crime he has committed.
This scene in the jail lasts so long after all the short scenes that have come before that it feels structurally eccentric. But it’s also original. After Aaron gets out of jail, he tells Izzy how Dwight humiliated but also protected him when they were moved to a tougher part of the facility. Aaron understandably doesn’t want anything more to do with Dwight, and Izzy is understandably haunted by Aaron’s broken promise, so he takes on Dwight’s case pro bono through the fancy law office that Aaron helped get him into. By the top of the second act, everyone has good reasons to hate and resent someone else as the play moves steadily to its climax.
It’s there that Caren falters, tripping up on the faults of the first part of the play: he forces something dramatic that probably felt organic while he was writing but feels manipulated and also truncated as the end of his play. The Recommendation seems to be moving in several potentially dangerous directions, but Caren puts a lid on these possibilities by telling us what we’ve already seen. There’s a very fine play here—it just needs a little more work to really start boiling.