By Michael Hillyer
Admissions, Joshua Harmon’s interesting, if ultimately limited, discourse on the perils of white male privilege, is now playing at the Mitzi E. Newhouse at Lincoln Center. The production, directed by Daniel Aukin, submits a compelling application for higher education without actually making it all the way out of prep school.
The action of the play takes place at and near Hillcrest, a New England boarding/prep school whose Headmaster, Bill Mason (Andrew Garman), is married to the Admissions Director, Sherri Rosen-Mason (Jessica Hecht). She has labored throughout her tenure at Hillcrest to increase the diversity of the predominantly white student body, and is finally enjoying the fruits of these efforts as the percentage of minority students for the incoming class has finally approached the 20% mark. That good news is overshadowed by the disappointing deferral letter her Hillcrest senior son Charlie (Ben Edelman) has received from Yale, which he had set his heart upon, and the simultaneous acceptance into Yale by his best friend Perry, whose father is black. Charlie has also been overlooked for the Editor position at the school newspaper, which went to a female less qualified, and he is unable to synthesize his feelings of frustration and rejection with his liberal parents’ professional commitment to the values of affirmative action and inclusion. This interesting dilemma provokes an intense family outburst in the kitchen of the Mason home; naturally, his parents want what’s best for him, but Charlie is throwing it right back at them. At one point, he says “Can you honestly spare me your liberal guilty white bullshit for two seconds and hear what I’m saying?” They take it right on the chin, like the good liberal sorts that they are, as he goes on an extensive rant about the unfairness of the quota-reliant admissions system that they have helped to construct – for his own failure. Bill Mason tasks his son with being a privileged brat who has had everything handed to him, but when Charlie goes storming off to his room, his parents set to work on pulling strings to help him get into a good college. This “liberal hypocrisy” doesn’t appear to work out terribly well, even when Charlie finally lands a slot at Middlebury College, because by that time Charlie has decided to go to a community college and have his parents donate the money that they would have spent on his education to create a scholarship for an under-privileged minority student. Charlie gets it: in order to give someone a seat at the table, someone else has to give up their place. That’s not flying with his parents, though it would seem be a living expression of everything they stand for, and upon this impasse this ultimately frustrating domestic drama ends, with Charlie storming off again to his room.
The cast is excellent, on the whole, though Mr. Edelman needs to master some vocal technique in order to make his way through his longer tirades; given at the decibel-splitting level he is attempting, I worry he won’t make it through eight shows a week. Jessica Hecht and Andrew Garman deliver solid performances as the parents, and in crucial, smaller roles Ann McDonough and Sally Murphy lend credible veteran support. Daniel Aukin’s staging is adroit, apart from some minor bumps and flatness, and the design staff has created a believable environment for the action, in an open kitchen area that widens out into scenes at Hillcrest, in a palette so white it is just a couple of steps short of a Wonder Bread factory.
Though the interesting premise at the heart of Admissions is good for some chuckles early on, I am not sure that what the national discourse needs right now is to be beating up on blue-state liberal elites; at the end of the day I remain unconvinced that we are the real problem. Additionally, the play never seems to open itself up to the larger issues of race that it raises; this is a play specifically about white people and how they respond, or not, to the need to create a space at the table for those less fortunate. Joshua Harmon demonstrates great potential as an emerging playwright and writes intelligent, compelling dialogue, but you have to wonder why, in a play ostensibly about race, there is not one person of color in the cast? Everywhere you look, it is white bread and mayo: the kitchen is white, the enormous staircase that sits over the kitchen area like a giant, fallen ladder is white, the parquet floor is blonder that Heidi, and we are watching a family meltdown over the ultimate White Folks’ Dilemma; their son didn’t get into Yale! After a while, all this self-conscious whiteness can take its toll, and I have to admit that about halfway through Admissions I probably just went snow-blind.
Admissions by Joshua Harmon, directed by Daniel Aukin
WITH Ben Edelman, Andrew Garman, Jessica Hecht, Ann McDonough, Sally Murphy.
Sets by Riccardo Hernandez, costumes by Toni-Leslie James, lighting by Mark Barton, sound by Ryan Rumery. At Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, 150 West 65th Street.