Josh Flanders is an actor, writer and comedian in Chicago. He is a writer for Choice The Musical and half of the comedy duo Flanders. Josh is a contributor for Chicago Reader and Chicagoland Musical Theatre, a member of the American Theater Critics Association, and a graduate of the Second City Conservatory. He is co-owner of Flanders Consulting.
Pictured: Michael Aaron Pogue and Julian Hester | Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow
by Josh Flanders
“The Recommendation” by Jonathan Caren is one of those performances that will stick with you long after you leave the theater. This immersive play brings the audience into the action, literally going from room to room, as the story unfolds. From a dorm room, a backyard in Hollywood, a sauna, and other locales, patrons are treated to drinks (both alcoholic and not) and have the opportunity to get up close and personal with the actors, offering an intense and intimate experience.
Iskinder Iodouku and Aaron Feldman are roommates at Brown University. Aaron is charismatic, has a rich daddy in LA with connections, and just wants to party. He dreams of being a filmmaker. Iskinder wants to be a lawyer and has worked hard to get into school. A child of an African immigrant, he lacks the connections Aaron has. Despite some differences, the two become best friends, in part due to their shared ambitions. But their friendship is tested when one gets into trouble and the other struggles with whether or not to help.
Julian Hester is perfect as Aaron “Felly” Feldman, the poster child for entitlement, encapsulating everything you hate about those with advantage, but who’s charm is intoxicating. His performance demands and gets attention. It is easy to laugh at his uncomfortable moments, yet Hester’s intensity and commitment is the kinetic thread that ties everything together. Despite his ability to pull strings for his best friend, he still struggles in his own way with the advantages he has.
Michael Aaron Pogue is dynamic and driven as Iskinder “Izzy” Iodouku, lured by a life that he could not on his own achieve. He recognizes Feldman’s privilege and is happy to accept his father’s help to advance his career. Both friends make promises they have trouble keeping.
Brian Keys is absolutely incredible as Dwight Barnes, a felon who is trying to better himself. Iskinder and Aaron both encounter Dwight in different circumstances and have the opportunity to help him get back on his feet. Keys has the wonderful ability to be at once menacing and funny, to switch from friendly and smooth to frightening.
Director Jonathan Wilson does a fine job of getting the most from his remarkable cast who are challenged by the fact that the audience shares the space with them. Kudos to the actors for being flexible with their blocking, as each night must offer different challenges despite the 34 guest limit. Scenic Designer Lauren Nigri has created fantastic sets with unreal accuracy, transporting guests to different locals with each scene; an absolute delight!
Everyone wants to impress each other and go to great lengths to do so. “The Recommendation” explores the notion of friendship and the potential costs involved in helping one’s friends, and what people get from helping others, good feelings or a quid pro quo. It delves into the world of power, how some people are born into advantage and others, despite trying, cannot achieve their dreams. Yet in the end, one’s own integrity and honesty is the greatest measure. As one character observes, it’s “not about who you know, but who knows you.”
Through Sept. 22. More info at windycityplayhouse.com.