Sherri Rosen-Mason (Jessica Hecht) is on a mission.
This head of admissions wants to increase the percentage of students of color at Hillcrest—“a second tier, on-the-cusp-of-being-a-first-tier prep/boarding school in rural New Hampshire,” as playwright Joshua Harmon describes it in Admissions—to 20 percent of the total.
At first Sherri seems to be scotched in her efforts by the bumbling ineffectualness of assistant Roberta (Ann McDonough), tasked with taking the photographs for the school’s admissions catalogue.
This Lincoln Center Theater play, directed crisply by Daniel Aukin on a simple set designed by Riccardo Hernandez, is punctuated by Roberta’s efforts to photographically please Sherri. First, there are not enough students of color, then there are too many students of color, and then Sherri is breaking down the totals by ethnic group.
The play’s focus, without any black characters in it, is race, and specifically the white anxiety and privilege that swirls around it, even—read especially—for those who consider themselves liberal, like Sherri.
“I’m not a race person. I don’t look at race,” says the 70-year-old Roberta, a little desperately.
“Let’s agree to disagree about that, OK,” says right-on Sherri.
But Harmon shows that Sherri is the one with the problem. Her best friend Ginnie’s (Sally Murphy) husband, Don, is black. Their son, Perry, is black, “but doesn’t photograph” as such, Sherri says to Roberta.
But he’s black, Roberta says.
Sherri’s mission in the name of “diversity” is forthright, an obsession. Roberta, whose family has been connected to the school for 100 years, doesn’t get it—and she seems initially to be the clueless one: old, prejudiced, and so prejudiced she doesn’t see it. However, her needling questions show that another kind of ignorance about race bubbles under Sherri’s passionately reformist exterior.
She’s happy when the unseen Perry gets into Yale, but Charlie (Ben Edelman), Sherri’s son, does not. (A lot of the fun comedy in the play comes down to acid back-and-forth over college status.) When he returns home to where Sherri and husband Bill (Andrew Garman), the head of school, are waiting, Charlie lets off his own race bomb: He thinks he didn’t get in because he is white. He’s the victim of reverse discrimination. “I’m actually one of the people working really fucking hard to earn a seat, and every time I get close it’s like, ew! Not you!”
Edelman’s shouting, railing, hysterical monologue of sheer anger and snark goes on for some minutes. It’s brilliantly learned, a colorful vomit of ugliness and confusion. Sherri and Bill sit there and listen helplessly, as do we. Edelman is a sniveling, weasely mess by the end of it, but maybe some in your audience will applaud his character’s wronged white angst as some members of mine did. If so, you might sit there and think of your seat neighbors: You're really not getting this.
“Can someone please tell me, is Penelope Cruz a person of color?” Charlie demands. “’Cause she’s from Spain but she speaks Spanish, and so if she is of color then are we saying all people from Spain are of color? And if all people from Spain are of color, then why not French people, or Italian people? They’re all right there on the Mediterranean. What is so special about Spain?”
The play is brimming with this kind of chaotic contentiousness, which can produce the best kind of dramatic whiplash. It can also induce confusion; the play's fundamental weak spot is tone. Beached between comedy and social drama, the actors find themselves working in different, clashing registers.
Hecht maintains her customary inviolable monotone, which makes no sense as her household roils around her, and it makes even less sense when what she has to say demands more than sounding like a computerized yogi. Edelman at least looks too old for 17, and effects a kind of lumbering teen gait that is a little absurd. His histrionics, however, are magnetic and loopy.
Garman, as his father, delivers the strongest denunciation of his son’s ugly views: “Why don’t you take a look at how the world actually works, and trot on up those stairs and go think about what the fuck went wrong in your brain to turn you into a racist, spoiled little shit? For shame.”
One should feel like cheering that—Bill is quite right—but something jars in Garman’s delivery.
The irony and satire is that Sherri, head of her diversity-foregrounding admissions, wants her white son to get into the right school and will do anything to make that happen.
Harmon does not leave the comedy standing to slack attention but ratchets it up even more with a sudden personality transformation on Charlie’s part, which makes little sense, and a further coloring in of Sherri’s utter hypocrisy. Its cause? Racism, although she would never call it that, but as it affects Ginnie, her best friend, she is forced to see it.
“The next time your family’s sitting around wondering why a black kid got something a white kid didn’t,” Ginnie tells her, “maybe you could help me figure out this: Why does my husband have the same credentials as yours, and mine teaches English, and yours is head of a school?"
The title of the play speaks to its two meanings: One is about the sheer iniquity of the admissions process at schools, where rich, privileged white students will always be favored over students of color; and also “admissions” in the sense of what is being admitted, in moments of high stress and emotion, about what motivates us, and what our true beliefs are.
The white liberal, more than the Trump voter, is becoming theater’s most fruitful target, and specifically the ones whose high-minded commitments to diversity are thrown to the wolves—with a side order of hypocrisy—when their own lives, and the lives of their children, face an unacceptable obstacle.
The hypocrisy of Sherri and Bill is as cringing as you would expect it to be, but there is also a generosity to Harmon’s writing that recognizes that being a parent is a minefield of compromises, hypocrisies, and little and big desperations. You want the best for your child. But: succeed now, save the world later.
Admissions makes itself too safe in its cocoon for its mainly white audience, because it allows us to scoff at Sherri and Bill, as hard as Charlie does, and we can scoff at Charlie too and his self-righteousness, as Sherri and Bill do, which shows the adult world up for exactly what it is.
The grit of the play—the cost to black people and the meaning of true equality—is kept at a minimum, because we do not see any black people on stage. That is deliberate on Harmon’s part. This is a play about whiteness, its privilege and frailties.
The actual racism is happening offstage, and the play would be an utterly different one if it made the audience more acquainted with it.
For all its cleverness parsing and filleting white middle-class hypocrisy to what looked like a mainly white middle-class audience, Admissions remains a self-contained parlor game. The insidiousness it rightly highlights is neutralized in its form and content. That, rather than Charlie’s vicious denunciations of his parents and Sherri’s careless and self-sabotaging playing of all sides, may leave you feeling the most uncomfortable.
Admissions is at Lincoln Center Theater (Newhouse Theater), New York City, booking through April 29.