Let’s admit it, Joshua Harmon is a playwright to follow, stalk and revere. His previous plays “Significant Other” parsed the bumpy road of gay relationships, and “Bad Jews” one of the most produced recent plays in America, tackled religion. All of these garnered praise, guffaws, deep thought and great entertainment. His newest work, currently gracing the stage of the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, is called “Admissions.” And it covers the full range of what that word can mean: something divulged and maybe a tad secret, or the act of letting someone in, usually to a place that requires some standards and not just an open door policy.
This is Harmon’s most serious, and yet still giggleable play. He says he worked at it on and off for 12 years and it is obvious that he turned the idea of preferential admissions for people of color, as well as inborn white privilege, over and over and viewed it from inside out and upside down. In Harmon’s words, “I’d never seen a deep exploration of being a white liberal or white privilege. What does privilege look like?”
The premise of “Admissions” is that at a posh New England Prep School the Admissions Officer, Sherri Rosen-Mason, played with taut whining and good-hearted perfection by Jessica Hecht, is keen on increasing the percentage of students of color. It is perhaps her life’s mission. An elderly, long time school administrator, Roberta, is in charge of the school brochure, and she seems only able to find pictures of white students to include, thus thwarting Sherri in her mission. Ann McDonough plays Roberta with bumbling aplomb.
Sherri is married to Bill, The Head of School, given gravitas and fatherly humor by Andrew Garman. These two have a son, Charlie, a senior at Hillcrest Prep. Charlie’s best friend is Perry, a bi-racial kid who attends the school. Perry has a pastry toting, white woman mom named Ginny (Sally Murphy) who is often given to frantic, air headed dithering or proselytizing. Sherri and Ginny are also fast friends. Both boys, Perry and Charlie, apply early decision to Yale. Perry gets in; Charlie is wait-listed. The drama ignites and unfolds between December 2015 and April 2016.
There are five characters in this tight hour and forty minute non-stop action satire. All of them Caucasian, by author’s design. Perry and his African American father are never seen, but referenced extensively. (In an interview with Harmon on NPR, he said he felt it was more genuine to write what you know, hence white characters and white privilege.)
Charlie, played by Ben Edelman, must be mainlining Red Bull as he has some of the most intense, energy infused monologues (along with endless stairs to run up and down) and still flip and flop like the hormonal teenager we are to believe he is. He delivers a rant on the issues of diversity. Is it fair how society decides who is a person of color? If Penelope Cruz is a person of color, why isn’t Sophie Loren? Charlie says his grades and SAT scores were better than Perry’s. If Charlie is half Jewish and his grandfather outran the Nazis, why isn’t he given preferential treatment? After all, decades ago, no Jews were admitted to Yale (or any women).
Then the rant veers to why some hapless girl named Olive was awarded the position of editor-in-chief of the school newspaper over Charlie. Charlie continues to run up the stairs, flop on the sofa, veritably foaming at the mouth and traversing the excellent set by Riccardo Hernandez, which serves both as Sherri’s office and the family home. This extended monologue wins actor Edelman applause as our heads are spinning. You can watch the audience wordlessly agree or squint as they parse the multitudes of positions presented on how diversity works or doesn’t work from the perspective of a well cared for, dare we say, privileged white boy. All of this action is given taut attention through the directing chops of Daniel Aukin who helmed “Bad Jews” and is scheduled to direct “Skintight,” the next Harmon play set to open later in the spring.
Following up on the monologue, Harmon allows the father to voice his thoughts. Garman’s character rises from his perch in the chair after his son has exhausted himself. He calls Charlie spoiled, says he has no gratitude. And chides him that he will always be fine, always ascend because he is a privileged white male from a prep school background who will no doubt go to an excellent university. He will always have a seat at the table, people like him built the table, and therefore a seat is saved.
The mother, whose job it is to constantly assess and split the infinitesimal difference between deserving candidates, is now stuck realizing that her son may or may not have gotten into his childhood dream school because some dedicated admissions officer, just like her, gave an edge to a kid of color. Or the kid wrote a better essay, had more compelling recommendations, or a host of other marvelous attributes that would make him a fit for what the class would need.
There is a plot twist that allows Harmon to explore a further notion of how far do our scruples and morals extend when it comes to potentially allowing our children to harm themselves. I won’t divulge this, since it is a good one and unconsidered by this viewer until it popped up.
In the end, we the audience, who resemble the people of privilege the play is shaking its fist at, are left admitting that we have questions. When our children, whether of color or not, get into a program, or a school, or get a promotion, do we think they earned it outright? Or do we, will we, wonder what other factors went into their, or our, admission to the next level.
Harmon’s “Admissions” is the kind of work we need in profusion. It pushes us to think about our country and what is going on when a white racist president strips rights from immigrants, LGBTQ citizens, and women. When people of color are disproportionately shot and we have a Justice Department that turns a blind eye espousing that the rampant police killings are a “local matter.” This play is so powerful because it considers multiple facets of diversity and instead of bludgeoning the audience with statistics, and horrors, it allows us to laugh at our neighbors, our often very serious children, and ourselves. Bravo to Harmon and Lincoln Center for producing such an audacious work.
“Admissions” continues through May 6 at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater,
Lincoln Center ,150 West 65th Street, New York, New York. For further information, visit the Lincoln Center Theater website.