By Shelley A. Sackett
Joshua Harmon’s terrific new play “Admissions,” now making its Boston premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company through November 30, packs a timely wallop. Set at and near Hillcrest, a toney progressive New Hampshire prep school, the plucky drama starts out poking fun at Sherri, Hillcrest’s white admissions director who is not happy with the draft of the Admissions Catalog she has just received.
It seems the catalog does not bear adequate witness to the milestone achievement of her 15-year tenure: tripling the diversity of Hillcrest’s predominantly white student body from 6% to 18% students “of color.” She knows this because she has counted all 52 pictures, and only three feature non-white faces. That is precisely 5.7%, and Sherri is livid. She has summoned Roberta, the veteran development officer responsible for the draft, to point out her glaring blunder.
Roberta is Sherri’s opposite. She is a frumpy, plain-spoken woman who calls a spade a spade. She is from another era, when personal qualities and merit mattered more than mathematical quotas. Roberta defiantly defends her work, pointing to a photo that features Perry, the son of a biracial teacher. “Perry’s black, isn’t he?” Roberta asks, confused. “Of course he is, but he doesn’t read black in this photo. He looks whiter than my son,” Sherri counters, exasperated. “I don’t see color. Maybe that’s my problem,” Roberta says.
That exchange sets the stage for Harmon’s intelligent and riotous drama that exposes the raw nerve of hypocrisy among white people of privilege who hide behind political correctness, loudly trumpeting an abstract policy of affirmative action and diversity right up until the moment they are personally impacted by its application. Then, these same folks sing a “not in my backyard” refrain. They may talk the talk (and talk-and talk they do), but when push comes to shove, they would never walk the walk.
Sherri’s husband, Bill, is head of school at Hillcrest, where their 17-year-old high-achieving son, Charlie, is a student hoping to attend Yale with his best friend, the not-visually-black-enough Perry. Perry’s white mother, Ginnie, is Sherri’s best friend, neatly tying a bow that encircles and intertwines the play’s characters.
Ginnie and Sherri hang out a lot. Later that day, in Sherri’s kitchen, both sip white wine and wring their hands over their sons’ fates. Today is the day they will find out if they got into Yale. Harmon’s razor-sharp dialogue reveals the first cringe-worthy chinks in their personal moral codes. Ginnie has brought Charlie a cake from Martin’s Bakery, the same one she bought for Perry, despite evidence the baker is a pedophile. “What are you gonna do? His cakes are great,” she says with a shrug. Sherri shares her catalog fiasco, lying to Ginnie that she couldn’t use the picture of her son because it was blurry.
Ginnie receives “the” phone call first – Perry, whose application classified him as black, was accepted. When Charlie is deferred, the victim, he believes, of reverse discrimination, Harmon goes to town as Charlie’s parents’ liberalism and personal ambitions for their son collide. “How did I not see this coming,” Charlie wails, as he points an accusing finger at his parents, the architects of the very quota-driven system that denied him his due. “I don’t have any special boxes to check.”
Later in the intermission-less 105-minute production (no spoilers in this review), Harmon asks his audience the same question faced by Charlie’s horrified parents: what would you do if your child became a casualty of the system of ethics and fairness you champion? Would your moral True North shift?
“Admissions,” with its double-entendre title, captured both Drama Desk and Outer Circle awards for 2018 best play, and the SpeakEasy production is a bases-loaded home run with Nathan Malin (Charlie) as its runaway star. This 20-year-old Boston University College of Fine Arts junior brings depth, vulnerability and physicality to a character that could have become a caricature in less capable hands. Cheryl McMahon is equally outstanding as the well-meaning and misunderstood Roberta and Maureen Keiller (Sherri) and Marianna Bassham(Ginnie) bring humor and humanity to their parts. Hopefully, Michael Kaye (Bill) has smoothed out the edges since press night.
Harmon, who’s “Bad Jews” took a whack at religious dogmatists, is gay and Jewish and knows a thing or two about life as a minority. “So much of what I think about revolves around questions of identity,” he said in an interview published in SpeakEasy’s program notes. “This play is trying to hold up a mirror to privilege and white liberalism, while remaining very conscious that this is just one narrow slice of a larger conversation.” For tickets and information, go to: https://www.speakeasystage.com/
This review first appeared in the Jewish Journal (jewishjournal.org).
‘Admissions’ – Written by Joshua Harmon; Directed by Paul Daigneault; Scenic Design by Eric Levenson; Lighting Design by Karen Perlow; Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker; Sound Design by Dewey Dellay; Stage Managed by Stephen MacDonald. Produced by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts through November 30, 2019.