SpeakEasy Stage’s ‘Admissions’ Pierces the Veil of White Male Privilege

Nathan Malin, Maureen Keiller and Michael Kaye in SpeakEasy Stage’s Production of “Admissions.” (Maggie Hall Photography)

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.

Cheryl McMahon, Keiller

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.

Marianna Bassham, Keiller

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.

Malin Keiller

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.

Erasing gender and race barriers puts a new face on ‘1766’

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Bobbie Steinbach (as Benjamin Franklin) and Benjamin Evett (as John Adams). [All photos by Andy Brilliant/Brilliant Photography]

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

Digging deep into the history of the United States reveals a largely unrecognized fact: Jews played a role in the events that launched the American Revolution. Like their fellow early settlers, they were divided in their loyalties, but there is no denying they had skin in the game.

The most famous revolutionary Jew was Polish-born Haym Salomon, a successful foreign securities dealer who helped finance the American cause. Francis Salvador was the first Jew elected to public office in the colonies. He was also the first Jew killed in the American Revolutionary War, fighting in 1776 on the South Carolina frontier. Abigail Minis was a Savannah, Ga., businesswoman and landowner who helped supply provisions for the revolutionary forces.

 

Don’t hold your breath, however, waiting for these unsung Jewish patriots to appear in The New Rep Theatre’s production of the 1969 Broadway hit, “1776.” The Tony-award-winning musical now onstage in Watertown focuses exclusively on the tumultuous political machinations that led to the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4. Our Jewish revolutionaries are not even a footnote.

 

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The cast of 1776

 

Nonetheless, co-directors Austin Pendleton and Kelli Edwards (the same team that breathed new life into the thread-worn “Fiddler on the Roof”) manage to shake things up by launching the play into the 21st century and casting it as gender and race neutral. Women play men, men play women, and the racial diversity on stage rivals that of “Hamilton.”

The strategy is, for the most part, clever and effective. The always-outstanding Bobbie Steinbach is dazzling as Ben Franklin. She steals every scene she is in (which is most of them) with her impeccable timing and gestures. It also doesn’t hurt that her character’s lines are the script’s best crafted.

The three-hour show takes place during a long, steamy Philadelphia summer. The Second Continental Congress, an unruly, exhausted and petulant group of men representing the original 13 colonies, meets day after day in a stifling room ‒ the windows can’t be opened or the chamber would fill with flies. Front and center on their agenda is deciding whether to declare national independence and unite formally in rebellion against British rule or remain separate sovereign colonies.

John Adams of Massachusetts is desperate to persuade this ill-tempered and motley crew that time is running out. If Congress doesn’t act now as a united front to throw off Great Britain’s tyranny, he fears General George Washington’s ragtag and outnumbered army will suffer crushing and lethal defeat.

The stumbling block is that Adams (in a spot on performance by Benjamin Evett) is, even by his own admission, obnoxious and disliked. Few take him or his ideas seriously. As the days pass, the room temperature and tempers flare, threatening to derail Adams’ dream. “It’s a revolution. We’re going to have to offend someone!” he bellows as yet another delegate proposes a self-serving amendment.

The script, based on the book by Peter Stone, is at times a starchy history lesson, unwavering in its emphasis on facts and chronology. The lackluster score and competent but uninspired choreography and lighting do not lighten the load. Although the audience leaves chock-full of knowledge, the lingering aftertaste is of a snack chosen for nutritional value rather than flavor.

White men comprised the real Second Congress. In this modern version, half the delegates are women, dressed as ‒ and playing the roles of ‒ men. Although initially distracting, the novelty soon wears off and everyone becomes a co-equal delegate. Suddenly, what really matters are the words they speak, not how they look or sound.

 

The directors succeed in creating a truly representative body, one that is color blind and gender neutral, united by the simple commonality of humanness. Basking in that possibility, even if it is only make believe, is well worth the price of admission.

 

Through Dec. 30 at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. Tickets are $22 (student) to $72. Visit newrep.org or call 617-923-8487.