Nobody reads “The Great Gatsby” to learn all about Nick Carraway. While an outsider may offer perspective, only the main guy in the arena truly commands our attention. Jonathan Caren’s world preem “The Recommendation” brings two contrasting, equally charismatic Gatsby-esque strivers onto the Old Globe’s arena stage. Yet every time they’re on a collision course, a passive, boring narrator sashays in to steal focus and reduce the heat. An otherwise handsome, absorbing production ends up meriting only a qualified recommendation.
Sucking up all the air from every room is golden boy Aaron Feldman (Evan Todd), scion of L.A. wealth who becomes Brown U.’s BMOC. No great scholarly shakes, the dude is all basketball hands and hip-hop argot as he wows the ladies and nurtures his bros, certain his social skills and connections will continue to pave his road with yellow brick en route to a filmmaking career. (Todd is almost too good at this act for comfort.)
Then comes the post-bac bummer, as a random L.A. traffic stop lands him in a holding cell with his cracked-mirror image. Career criminal Dwight Barnes (a mesmerizing Jimonn Cole) ricochets from camaraderie to menace in detailing filmmaking dreams no less grandiose than Aaron’s. “I’m chilling up in my Hollywood bungalow kickin’ it me and Steven…,” he faux-reminisces as a practiced eye takes the terrified kid’s measure.
The ‘rents deny their son bail to teach him a lesson, which he receives in the manic Barnes’ detailed portrait of serious jail time. A bargain is exacted by which pretty-boy’s back will be watched for the duration, and once the cell doors open, a grateful Aaron will open doors to the film industry — details tantalizingly unspecified for the moment.
The alert reader will note the absence of mention, until now, of the dramatic tripod’s third prong. That’s Aaron’s college roomie and acolyte, later accepted to UCLA Law upon the intercession of Feldman Senior. Iskinder (Brandon Gill) is the classic Fitzgeraldian poor kid rendered starry-eyed by privilege, with an insatiable tendency to spell out themes and exposition and his Ethiopian-born father’s gnomic words to live by — “Do not spy with avaricious eyes” — which, of course, he fails to live by at all.
Helmer Jonathan Munby guides Cole and Todd through a series of cat-and-mouse games you enjoy while they’re happening even as they whet your appetite for the next one. Alexander Dodge’s metal-gridded set serves up poolside, lockup and locker room with equal ease, complemented by Philip S. Rosenberg’s supple lighting.
Yet Iskinder is a total drag on the proceedings. Gill lacks any governing attitude toward his narration — he might as well be reciting someone else’s story — and in interactions with the others, he rides one note of earnest confusion. The script specifies he’s a “habitual stoner” with “a mounting anger waiting to be released,” but Munby guides Gill to no hint of either in the entire two hours.
Caren’s press notes identify Iskinder as the main character, his ambivalence about needing and accepting Aaron’s helping hand supposedly the story’s engine. But the guy is remote from the most exciting events en route, windily reflective but only engaged in passing. Eventually he’s dragged unconvincingly into the denouement, almost as an afterthought. It’s actually easy to imagine him cut completely, the better to craft a sizzling two-hander.
Any author is entitled to spell out his themes as he sees fit, but somebody at the Old Globe never got the memo.