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Admirers of the marvelous Jessica Hecht’s distinctive gifts as a stage performer will be well aware of the subtle shadings she brings to a role. But given how much of her work is anchored by natural warmth, there’s something uniquely thrilling about her character’s flashes of flinty impatience toward a nattering, sweetly antiquated colleague in the opening scene of Admissions, particularly once the older woman is flummoxed by her criticisms. Those sharp edges are a constant among almost all the characters in Joshua Harmon’s new play, a smart, provocative drama with a rich vein of humor that pulls the rug out from under liberal white America, letting nobody off scot-free.
Good intentions seldom pay off in this intentionally uncomfortable play, in which progressive parents, who have raised their teenage son to express himself freely and form his own opinions, feel the burn when his thoughts and actions don’t jibe with their own somewhat smug convictions. At a time when vicious conservative web trolls continue to rail against Social Justice Warriors, it’s a ballsy move to write a seriocomedy that skewers liberal hypocrisy from the left. So even if Admissions is a little speechy and could use some trimming — Harmon perhaps overindulges in the epic screeds — it represents a satisfying expansion of the playwright’s range after his well-received previous efforts, Bad Jews and Significant Other.
Hecht plays Sherri Rosen-Mason, head of admissions at Hillcrest, a New Hampshire prep school where her husband Bill (Andrew Garman) is headmaster. The issue of inclusion at elite American schools and colleges is a big one, and for Sherri and Bill, making a difference in terms of the race and class balance is their mission. Of course, while Sherri is congratulating herself on beefing up the “students of color” quota to an unprecedented 18 percent, she also has no problem fast-tracking the enrollment of wealthy white legacy students.
Still, that doesn’t factor into her exasperation with development staffer Roberta (Ann McDonough), when the latter presents a draft of the school’s new admissions catalog in which all the students’ faces are lily-white. “I don’t see color. Maybe that’s my problem,” says Roberta. “I don’t look at race.” Sherri sanctimoniously disagrees, mocking the exchange later with her friend Ginnie (Sally Murphy), a WASP married to a biracial faculty member. But Roberta is arguably the most transparently straight-up character in the play. Her legitimate perplexity when Sherri points out that Ginnie’s son Perry reads as white in one of the catalog photos is quite funny, and her overcompensating efforts to address Sherri’s concerns in later scenes become increasingly hilarious. McDonough is priceless as poor Roberta teeters at her wits’ end.
The unseen Perry is the inseparable best friend of Sherri’s son Charlie (Ben Edelman), and both seniors have applied to Yale, largely because of their shared loved of Mystic Pizza. But when Perry gets accepted and the application of Charlie, who considers himself the superior student, is deferred, his very public humiliation erupts in a torrent of anger that his coddling mother is unable to quell.
In an aria of resentment that seems destined to become a virtuoso audition piece for young male actors, Charlie spews out his frustration about Perry benefiting from race quotas while he gets lumped on the undesirable, over-crowded heap of entitled white men. Harmon gets a little carried away with himself here, but it’s undeniably entertaining to hear Charlie rant about who gets to define racial diversity, prompting such questions as: If Penelope Cruz is a person of color, then shouldn’t we discuss why Sophia Loren and Marion Cotillard are not?
He also makes prickly points about the history of Jews being kept out of Ivy League colleges, and how quotas are merely a new way of continuing that exclusion. This later prompts an indignant Bill, a gentile, to roll his eyes at secular Jewish Sherri about the tastelessness of their atheist son “latching onto your dead grandfather’s Auschwitz cousins.”
But Charlie’s bitterness is not confined to his Yale snub. He also lets loose on the implicit self-loathing of white fellow students railing against the shortage of writers of color on the English curriculum — to the extent that Herman Melville has gotten bumped in favor of Toni Morrison. And he reserves special scorn for Olive Opatovsky, an apparently mediocre writer and an indecisive leader, who landed the editor-in-chief position over him at the student newspaper after a soapbox-seizing classmate complained that it was high time a woman ascended to that top rank.
Despite the somewhat overwritten verbosity of all this fulmination, Edelman powers through it with a believable surge of pent-up discontent that is raw and painful enough to keep tightly wound Charlie from seeming like a monster, even as his views veer into reactionary waters. At the same time, Sherri and Bill, firm believers in letting their son speak his mind, exchange looks of awkwardness, concern and perhaps mutual reproach, before waiting until he’s finished to react in markedly different ways.
In the aftermath, Harmon continues to chip away at questions across the spectrum from white privilege to white guilt, causing a seemingly irreconcilable falling out between old friends Sherri and Ginnie along the way. The climactic conflict, however, comes when the principles instilled in Charlie throughout his life kick back in, forcing him to take a step back and reframe his anger from a more enlightened perspective. That prompts him to take unexpected measures to shift the balance by doing what he can to create positive change, his martyrdom putting his parents in an excruciating position. Neither Sherri nor Bill ever expected Charlie to relinquish his privilege, just as they’ve never really surrendered their own.
It might seem counterintuitive of Harmon to write a play addressing this subject without a single non-white person actually seen onstage — despite people of color factoring significantly into almost every discussion. But that bold choice adds to the Ivory Tower insularity of the situation and the underlying point that the racial conversation in America cannot conveniently separate whites into hate-spewing bigots on one side and saintly crusaders on the other. The situation is infinitely more complex.
Director Daniel Aukin (who staged the premiere of Harmon’s Bad Jews) and his fine cast confidently steer Admissions through this sticky, at times morally murky territory, making us snicker one minute at the double-standards of characters like Sherri and Bill, before turning around the next and cornering us into wondering where we would stand in similar circumstances. The current of xenophobia fanned by the last election never comes up for direct discussion, and yet this flawed but fascinating play puts that discourse in sharp relief, pushing us to take a closer look at our own attitudes.
Venue: Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, New York
Cast: Jessica Hecht, Ben Edelman, Andrew Garman, Ann McDonough, Sally Murphy
Director: Daniel Aukin
Playwright: Joshua Harmon
Set designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume designer: Toni-Leslie James
Lighting designer: Mark Barton
Sound designer: Ryan Rumery
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater
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