Thursday, September 5, 2013

‘The Recommendation’: Ferris Bueller with Consequences

If Ferris Bueller had been a real person, he’d have been a lot like Aaron Feldman, the central character in Jonathan Caren’s funny, smart, and provocative new play The Recommendation, now on view at The Flea.

Bueller is, of course, the charming slacker in the modern classic film comedy Ferris Buller’s Day Off, a high school senior who seems to be able to get away with pretty much any shenanigan he sets his hand to. 

Life does seem Bueller-like for Aaron, whose tale is narrated not by himself but by his college roommate and friend, Iskinder (aka “Izzy”).  This is how Izzy, the son of a working class Ethiopian father and a white mother, describes Aaron:

It’s not that he’s any better than the rest of us.  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.

We all know people like this, loaded with charisma by the bucketful and able to use it as a means of sliding through life.  Things are generally good for the Aaron Feldmans of the world, until they run into a situation that they cannot easily control either on their own or through their network of well-positioned family and friends. 

What happens to Aaron is that he runs into an even more manipulative person then himself, a street-smart hustler named Dwight—equal parts charmer and thuggish con man who has spent considerable time bouncing in and out of prison.  Aaron feels his world starting to cave in on him when he finds himself doing some jail time alongside Dwight when his parents balk at bailing him out. 

Terrified out of his skull, Aaron—who believes that a past and hitherto unpunished incident has finally caught up with him—makes the devil’s bargain with Dwight:  protection for Aaron in exchange for obtaining legal help for Dwight.  But when Aaron’s case is dismissed, he happily goes off, leaving Dwight to stew in prison for another five years.

When Dwight does get out—with the help of Iskinder (now an attorney)—he decides to pay a call on Aaron in search of justice, or at least a door-opening letter of recommendation.  The final scene deteriorates into a bitter fight, through not the one you might have expected.

Jonathan Caren’s strength as a writer lies in his ability to mix themes of loyalty, friendship, racial and class divides, and liberal guilt with snappy dialog, often quite funny, sometimes scary, and sometimes both at the same time (Dwight’s behavior is most unpredictable). The scene in jail, with Dwight getting Aaron to join him in a verse of Das Racist’s “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” while alternately razzing on a spaced out junky has a wonderful Eddie Murphy style and precision.

Style and precision also mark the direction of Kel Haney and the terrific performances by the three actors:  Austin Trow as Aaron, James Fouhey as Iskinder, and Barron B. Bass as Dwight. The three are members of The Bats, The Flea’s resident company whose actors are chosen annually through a highly competitive audition process.  The payoff is first-rate productions of the sort that The Recommendation most definitely represents. 

Now if I can only get “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” out of my head!

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