Last year, Windy City Playhouse launched a bona-fide hit with Southern Gothic, the immersive theater experience set in the early 1960s where audiences were “invited” to a birthday party among friends, there to witness all the drama as it unfolded. The play took place inside the hosts’ house, different scenes happening simultaneously around you, as you wandered room to room taking it all in. It became such a hit that the company opened a second venue on the South Loop in order to continue its run while other shows were mounted at their West Irving Park Road flagship theater.
A high-energy, laugh-till-you-cry production of Noises Off followed, again treating the audience to a non-traditional experience as the whole crowd relocated “backstage” for the second half of the show, watching the play within a play hilariously fall apart before our eyes.
Both productions boasted strong production values and impressive casts, and both made magical use of the innovative staging, giving audiences used to two acts and an intermission a jolt of something completely out of the ordinary. The two shows made brilliant use of the moving audience, and the material in each (a house party, a play about putting on a play) lent themselves to their unique presentations.
This week, the storefront theater premiered The Recommendation, a small production by casting standards; the show features just three male actors (Julian Hester, Brian Keys and Michael Aaron Pogue) whose lives intersect in complicated, charged ways from college to mid-life crises. In every other way, the ambitions of playwright Jonathan Caren’s contemporary drama (here directed by Jonathan Wilson), are quite grand, from the timeline to themes to the set pieces.
In an attempt to keep their immersive theater streak going, The Recommendation is presented to just about 30 people at a time so this small group can follow Iskinder (Izzy to his friends, son of an Ethiopian immigrant) and his roommate Aaron Feldman (aka Felly, a total bro) from their dorm room at Brown University to housesitting at a boss’s beach house in Los Angeles to a jail cell to a Japanese restaurant to…at least half a dozen other locations I’ve lost track of.
The story of these two friends, one (Hester, who is white) who’s been handed everything on a silver platter and the other (Pogue, who is black) who’s relied on his own hard work and strong upbringing to get ahead, is quite compelling, particularly when Feldman gets caught up with the law and crosses paths with Dwight Barnes (Keys), a small-time criminal with grandiose dreams who steps in to protect Feldman in the clink. In exchange, Feldman promises to help Dwight out however he can from the outside, but his own ego and one heavy (handed) secret get in the way. Iskinder, a newly minted lawyer, hears his friend’s harrowing tale of jail time and sets about helping Dwight in his plight to find justice, setting in motion a series of events that cost the men nearly everything.
Unfortunately, this timely and potentially poignant narrative gets lost in all the commotion of shifting from one set to the next, two dozen people awkwardly shuffling down hallways and through doorways, trying to find a spot to sit or stand in order to see the forthcoming action as unobtrusively as possible. I’m unconvinced that Caren’s play, unlike its predecessors, calls for such a presentation; an approach that played as utterly divine in earlier examples is sadly clunky and underwhelming here. Sure, the jail cell really feels like a jail cell. But is the scene any more effective for my being inside it with the actors? The sake served at the Japanese restaurant is a great touch, but is that what I’ve come to the theater for?
There’s something worth seeing in The Recommendation; unfortunately, it gets lost somewhere in the staging.
The Recommendation runs through September 22 at Windy City Playhouse (3014 W. Irving Park Rd.); tickets and a full performance schedule are available online here.
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