By Samuel L. Leiter
Admissions, by Jonathan Harmon (Bad Jews), is one of those provocatively electric plays that, even as it bugs you with disagreeable ideas, annoying characters, or dramatic contrivances, nonetheless holds you firmly in its grip because you feel you’re watching something meaningfully alive.
The pale wood-floored set (designed by Riccardo Hernandez) on the Mitzi E. Newhouse’s thrust stage serves simultaneously as the location of Sherri Rosen-Mason’s (Jessica Hecht) home, with its tall, upstage staircase, and her office as director of admissions at Hillcrest, an elite New England prep school.
The tables and chairs at center and surrounding the perimeter could as easily be in one as the other, expressing the deep-rooted connection between Sherri’s private and professional lives. Consequently, scenes blend between the locations, the transitions marked only by Mark Barton’s subtle lighting cues, ominous rumbling created by Ryan Rumery, and tonal changes in the acting.
Hillcrest, like many of its kind, is a bastion of white privilege. Sherri, though, is so intensely dedicated to increasing its racial diversity that she bears down hard on Roberta (Ann McDonough), the aging, overworked, long-serving staff member in development. To Sherri’s liberal eyes, the exaggeratedly obtuse Ann’s work on the school’s recruitment brochure isn’t showing enough nonwhite faces to attract prospective minority applicants.
Sherri and Roberta’s recruitment travails occupy one of the play’s two principal serio-comic plot threads as Sherri finds success in significantly increasing Hillcrest’s people of color population. The other thread winds around Charlie (Ben Edelman), the grungy, unkempt son of the Jewish Sherri and her WASP husband, Bill (Andrew Garman), who heads Hillcrest.
Charlie and Perry Peters (unseen), both seniors at the school, have been best friends since early childhood. When Perry, the biracial son of Sherri’s white friend, Ginny (Sally Murphy), makes Yale and Charlie is put on the “deferred” list, Charlie explodes with jealous rage, tinged with the hue of racism.
As the recent events in Parkland, Florida, have reminded us, intelligent, well-educated high school students can be extremely articulate, but Charlie takes that possibility to the nth degree. Convinced that Perry made Yale because of his biracialism, he screams a stingingly vitriolic, pungently funny aria of racial analysis about how, in the interests of diversity, people are classified by race, noting such things, for example, as the ethnic disparity reflected in Hispanic names; think Penelope Cruz.
Charlie’s remarkable diatribe, shouted at consistently full throttle for 17 minutes as his parents listen tensely, may make you want to strangle him (more for his manner than his message). His theatrical showpiece is followed by Bill’s more controlled but equally furious rebuttal and Sherri’s consolingly helicopter-mom reaction.
While much of what Charlie says blows liberal identity politics to shreds, it’s hard not to agree with Bill that he’s a “spoiled over-privileged little brat,” a blow followed by Bill’s sure-to-get-a-laugh “It looks like we successfully raised a Republican.” Yet the privileged Bill himself could stand to learn a thing or two in this dispute.
Such is the groundwork for an intermissionless hour and 40-minute play that tests the racial/ethnic/gender prejudices of all concerned, that casts Sherri’s professional ambitions against her personal ones, that disturbs personal friendships, that questions the hegemony of white privilege, and that comes to a boil after Charlie has an epiphany that inspires a questionable, self-sacrificing decision. What he does will rattle his domestic cage and instigate the kind of parental angst it’s likely many theatregoers will feel deep in their bones.
Daniel Aukin’s crisply focused direction immerses you deeply in the play’s emotional and intellectual environment. Edelman’s Charlie is obnoxiously self-centered but it won’t be easy to forget him; Garman captures Bill’s paternal wisdom and anger precisely; McDonough is comically frazzled as the put-upon brochure designer; but Murphy’s Ginny is spotty, sometimes overdramatizing simple things.
The reed-thin Jessica Hecht, dressed in black slacks and top (Toni-Leslie James did the costumes), uses her trademark intonations to quirkily good effect. A model of self-control, she rarely looks at the person she’s speaking to, facing out as she reacts internally behind her oversized black glasses. When she unloads, though, it’s like a bomb going off.
Admissions is strong theatre. It sometimes may seem like an artificial setup for a dramatically contrived debate about issues without a clear resolution, and its lack of a single person of color in a play about diversity is questionable.
Nevertheless, the fullness of its dialogue, the force of its passion, the conviction of its performance, and, especially, its varying points of view will needle you all the way home.
Photos: Jeremy Daniel
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater/Lincoln Center Theater
150 W. 65th St., NYC
Through April 29. www.lct.org