Jon Caren has an incredible gift: writing plays that are vastly different in style and structure, but that each take a hilarious, often brutal look at people on the verge of self-discovery. His characters carry the wisdom obtained only by people haunted by their past. Oftentimes, they don’t fit in their own worlds and are searching for a place of belonging.
“I grew up with friends from opposing socioeconomic backgrounds, yet I kind of felt on the outside of all of them,” he says.
Raised in Los Angeles, but educated in New York, Caren has spent a great deal of his artistic career bouncing back and forth between the two cities. “There was something in this feeling of not belonging anywhere,” says Caren, “as well as a reflection on modern friendship that I wanted to write about, because it was something I didn’t fully understand about myself.”
Caren’s award-winning play the Recommendation had a highly successful 2012 run at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater and began previews at the Flea Theater on August 23.
The play concerns the 15-year friendship of two men from different social classes: Iskinder, a son of a working class Ethiopian immigrant trying to make his way through Brown University, and his roommate Aaron Feldman, a well-connected white man born into a wealthy family. As the two men get older, their social dynamic changes and their relationship takes an unexpected turn.
“Jon’s ethics are the soul of his plays,” says Ben Kamine, a resident director at the Flea. “His writing wrestles with challenging moral dilemmas that plague our world and keep him up at night. The Recommendation chews through issues of privilege, how they affect friendships, and who we give a helping hand to in life.”
Caren’s unabashed examination of rich privilege and the difficulty of transcending the class one is born into strikes a cord with many of his contemporaries. “He’s not precious at all,” says playwright Tasha Gordon-Solomon. “It’s pretty fucking courageous.”
I couldn’t agree more. And I’m writing this article, so I’ll just put it out there: as artists, haven’t we all had an Aaron in our lives?
ISKINDEREveryone who is anyone knows someone like Feldman.
Feldman’s fresh out of the shower, a towel around his waist. He winks at an audience member and hands Iskinder his clothes.
ISKINDERRemember in first grade when you drew a sea turtle and hoped Ms. Applebaum would give you a gold star? Well she didn’t because she gave it to Feldman.
ISKINDEROr that time in high school when the cast list was pinned to the bulletin board and you looked for your name, but all you saw—was Feldman’s?
ISKINDERWhen Marisa Lerner broke up with Nick Kolinsky after four years of high school monogamy, you thought it could finally be your chance but somehow Feldman beat you to the chase.
Feldman drops his towel, quickly slips on a pair of turquoise American Apparel briefs. Maybe you catch a glimpse of something. The point is you’re looking.
ISKINDERIt’s not that he’s any better than the rest of us. He just knows how to seize an opportunity. And being smart, privileged, and white as the sky is when you die—the opportunities were there for the taking.
“I got to know Jon when he was a Dramatists Guild Fellow,” says Andrea Lepcio of the Dramatist Guild. “He writes with compassion and honesty, cracking open contemporary life to reveal the anguish and hope that causes characters to wreak havoc while searching for connection.”
I asked Jon about being identified as a white man of privilege and the fear, if any, that he feels when writing minority characters from his perspective.
“I didn’t start with the intent of writing about class and race,” he explains, “I almost didn’t write the play because I thought, given my race, ‘Who am I to speak for these characters?’” He came to realize, he says, that “I was exploring [the] generally veiled hypocrisy of the middle class: we are quick to condemn the rich, yet many of us are willing to do anything to become them at the same time. This play was an awakening of that in myself [and] that is Iskinder’s unconscious dilemma in the Recommendation.”
“The last thing I want is for the Recommendation to be called a ‘race’ play,” Caren insists. “It’s a play about friendship; how we choose our friends and why. And it’s complicated to answer.”
ISKINDERAnd you like Feldman because he laughs at your jokes. He makes you feel welcome at social gatherings. He sends thank you cards.
ISKINDERAnd, you hate Feldman. He’s like a tick that burrows in your skin and sucks all the blood it can retain. Around four PM when you feel that inexplicable lethargy and wonder if you have mono or cancer, your great epiphany comes when you realize the disease you’re suffering from is actually Feldman sucking at your soul.
Feldman reclines on a therapists’ couch.
FELDMANI think my problem is I’m too self-absorbed? Maybe because I put all this pressure on myself because of my dad? My mom was never there for me. God my screenplay sucks. Can we do the exercise where we float back to childhood? I like that one. Thanks, Elaine.
ISKINDERThen just as you’re ready to rid yourself of this evil toxin, that’s when you realize—you need him more than he needs you…
FELDMANGuess who has front row tickets to (band of choice) with your name on them? (he sings band of choice).
ISKINDERI’ll start the play now.
The Recommendation by Jonathan Caren runs August 23 – September 22 at the Flea Theater at 41 White Street. For tickets and further info, visit www.theflea.org.
JAnIne nAbers is a playwright and librettist. She lives in Brooklyn.