Two Americas Collide in the Compelling The Recommendation at Artistic Vibes

In 2004, before a sex scandal rendered him a candidate non grata, John Edwards distilled this country’s widening income gap and lack of upward mobility into a bumper-sticker meme: Two Americas. The division was between the privileged-from-birth and the perpetual strivers, the haves and the have-nots.

By most accounts, this chasm continues to increase, and it’s on vivid, if not sanctimonious, display in Jonathan Caren’s 2013 play The Recommendation, running now at Artistic Vibes in a customarily spartan production from Miami’s Ground Up and Rising.

The play begins in college, where Iskinder (O’Neil Delapenha), an American of Ethiopian descent whose most important asset is a bedazzled backpack full of weed, meets his roommate, Aaron Feldman (Christian Vandepas), a placating, well-connected film major. Aaron’s ambition is to write a screenplay that will sell; Iskinder dreams of becoming a defense lawyer for the downtrodden. Aaron, whose father is a powerful attorney, takes Iskinder under his wing, sharing his effortless prosperity and using his family connections to secure Iskinder’s future at UCLA Law School.

But when Aaron suddenly winds up in a holding cell for a mysterious traffic violation, his status can no longer help him. Panicked, he accepts assistance from his cellmate in the drunk tank, Dwight (Kevin A. Walton), a black, tatted-up eccentric with plenty of experience behind bars. This time, it’s Aaron accepting the recommendation, striking a quid pro quo with Dwight that he never intends to honor.

Caren’s earnest play, directed with surprisingly comic zeal by Arturo Rossi, explores the politics, calculations and negotiations that underpin friendships. Its disquieting observations help the play transcend its contrived plotting. Vandepas reminds us why he’s one of the most gifted and underrated actors in South Florida theater, crafting a detestable douchebag who wields influence like a fifth appendage, but who can transform into a whimpering child when his well-laid plans evaporate. Walton is equally phenomenal, introducing Dwight with a delusional, implacable bipolarity and, in the play’s climax, a seething authenticity that brings the strange quirk of his earlier scene into clearer focus.

The two extended dialogues between Vandepas and Walton are so edge-of-your-seat riveting that it’s difficult to overlook the production’s one weak link. Delapenha lacks the necessary command and nuance for his role as the idealistic Iskinder; he too often muddles words, his enraged explosions seem unnatural, and he fails to exude lawyerly authority when the time comes.

The play has no set, just a smattering of props, like the pair of creaking, institutional cots that make every scene look like a prison. This is consistent with previous productions of The Recommendation, but sometimes you want a bit more. Rossi uses the minimalist space with savvy, staging some of the action in an open living-room arrangement underneath the proscenium, where the actors slyly interact with the audience and, at one point, the sound technician.

The lighting doesn’t always keep up with these transitions. Characters sometimes wind up conversing in murky shadows, though in one inspired touch, Delapena delivers a monologue lit only by the glow of his cellphone, the actor’s shadow towering behind him.

Correct though they may be, the play is a bit too on-the-nose rage at the inherent injustices of birth, skin color, and opportunity. The Recommendation leaves audiences with plenty to digest, even if it sometimes spoon-feeds them its nutrients.

The Recommendation runs through July 12 at Artistic Vibes, 12986 SW 89th Ave., Miami. Tickets cost $20 adults and $15 seniors, and admission is free for audiences under the age of 25. Free, stripped-down performances of The Recommendation will take place July 18-26, outdoors, at Miami Beach Botanical Garden, 2000 Convention Center Dr., Miami Beach. Visit for tickets.
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John Thomason