Privilege and striving. Promise and betrayal. Moral strength and weakness. They all figure into The Recommendation, a 2012 play by Juilliard grad Jonathan Caren, a sometimes-incendiary drama now getting its South Florida debut thanks to Ground Up & Rising.
Founded in 2005, the not-for-profit company, which helped launch the careers of rising film and TV actors Arturo Rossi, Bechir Sylvain, Sheaun McKinney and others (all Ground Up & Rising founders), doesn’t produce often. And as is the case with both The Recommendation and its August-September show Vincent River, the troupe presents its work in two very different venues: the small Artistic Vibes space in a warehouse area near The Falls shopping center and the Miami Beach Botanical Garden.
Sporadic production and dual performance spaces make audience development harder, and that’s too bad. Ground Up & Rising pours passion into its work, and even if a show isn’t flawless — that’s true of The Recommendation — the company’s choices have a daring and intensity that make them worth experiencing.
The script itself, the work of a young writer with a promising voice, contains some of those flaws. And Ground Up’s production, staged in bare-bones fashion by Rossi, has others, mainly because one of the three actors doesn’t rise to the level of his cast mates.
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The Recommendation follows the forged-in-college friendship of two young men from disparate worlds. Aaron Feldman (Christian Vandepas) is a silver-spoon California kid, an aspiring filmmaker who brings the party with him wherever he goes. Izkinder — Izzy (O’Neil Delapenha) — is the bright son of an Ethiopian immigrant father and a white American mother. They meet when they’re paired as roommates at Brown University, and Izzy swiftly comes to believe that he has hit the roomie jackpot — even more so when Aaron’s influential dad later writes a recommendation that helps magna cum laude grad Izzy get into law school at UCLA.
The friendship endures, but real life brings the guys’ character into sharp relief.
Aaron is frustrated by the novel experience of not having his desires instantly gratified, and when a mishap lands him in jail overnight, an encounter with a volatile repeat offender named Dwight (Kevin A. Walton) leads Aaron to make wild, empty promises. Izzy puts aside his dream of helping the less fortunate for a law firm job that will better support his wife and young son, but a detour involving Aaron and Dwight puts his life on a different track too. Some of that plotting is contrived, but it leads the actors to the kind of intense final encounter that is Ground Up & Rising’s dramatic thing.
Vandepas, who just gets better and better as he forges a career at different South Florida theaters, brings an energetic charisma and lots of nuanced humor to Aaron; you’re always intrigued by where this spoiled, unreliable guy will go next on his wild ride through life.
Walton, chiseled and extravagantly tattooed, delivers Dwight’s most outlandish lies and fantasies as though they were the gospel truth. Coolly menacing, with a hair-trigger temper, Walton’s Dwight ratchets up the tension whenever he appears, even if his mission at that moment is to be ingratiating.
Delapenha’s Izzy serves as the play’s narrator, and like the others, the actor also has to play a smaller role. (He’s a crackhead jailed with Aaron and Dwight, while Walton briefly plays Izzy’s father, and Vandepas is Izzy’s disapproving boss.) Delapenha’s scenes as Izzy aren’t bad, but his narration isn’t anywhere close to riveting or engaging, and the crackhead bits are repetitive, distracting and more comedic than convincing. Were the acting more qualitatively balanced, The Recommendation would deserve a stronger recommendation.
If you go
What: ‘The Recommendation’ by Jonathan Caren.
Where: Ground Up & Rising production at Artistic Vibes, 12986 SW 89th Ave., Miami (additional free performances at Miami Beach Botanical Garden, 2000 Convention Center Dr., Miami Beach, at 5 p.m. July 18-19, July 24 and July 26).
When: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 6 p.m. July 5 and July 12.
Cost: $20 ($15 seniors, free for those under 25).
Information: 305-562-5849 or www.groundupandrising.org.