‘Admissions’ at Theatre Nova seems ripped from the headlines and the McMansions of Michigan
ANN ARBOR – Talk about timely art reflecting life. The white admissions director of an East Coast boarding school is wearing herself to a frazzle trying to boost the institution’s enrollment of ethnically diverse students.
Simultaneously, she and her left-leaning husband — headmaster at the boarding school — are fervently hopeful that their 17-year-old son Charlie will be accepted into a distinguished college.
Joshua Harmon’s satirical play Admissions shows how the couple’s socially progressive ideals are challenged and splintered when their son Charlie’s biracial best friend Perry receives an acceptance letter into the freshman class of the boys’ dream school – Yale – but Charlie is wait listed and becomes emotionally unhinged.
Charlie — superbly portrayed by Jeremy Kucharek, is convinced his Yale application was more compelling than Perry’s –and recalls how Yale recruiters were more eager to speak with his racially-mixed buddy than him during their visit to campus.
The deferment also causes him to remember being passed over for editor-in-chief of the school newspaper in favor of a female applicant, whom he deems as an inferior writer with lesser leadership qualities.
In an angry 15-minute diatribe that is both horribly ugly and hysterically funny, Charlie declares himself a victim of reverse discrimination. Yale didn’t snatch him up because he’s white, he says, and this isn’t fair because criteria for defining who’s white and who’s not are murky.
“Can someone please tell me, is Penelope Cruz a person of color?” Charlie demands. “Because she’s from Spain and speaks Spanish, and so she is a person of color, 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 mother, Sherri Rosen-Mason (Diane Hill) is willing to overlook her son’s self-pitying tirade as teen-age angst in the throes of his first major disappointment. The father, (Joe Bailey) denounces his son’s views, calls him a spoiled little shit, and orders him to ponder what went awry in his brain to turn him into a racist.
Affirming his belief in affirmative action, Bill assures his wife that Charlie will be just fine — even if Charlie has to attend Dartmouth.
But the couple’s progressive ideals are rocked when Charlie – having come around to his parents’ way of thinking – publishes an editorial in the school newspaper that he will relinquish all his white privilege entitlements and put himself through college – community college.
He publically calls upon his parents to use the big bucks they have been socking away in his college fund to endow a scholarship at the boarding school to help students of color attend.
Moreover, he withdraws all applications he’d made to Ivy League schools.
Charlie’s parents are livid. They say “community college” as if they’re dirty words. They tell Charlie that he can’t make positive contributions that will better the word if he starts in community college. He’ll never meet movers and shakers there. Holding down a low-paid service sector job to pay for tuition and a moldy apartment won’t leave him with time or energy to have sex with cute co-eds, Dad argues.
The Masons become moral contortionists. They secretly start working their white-privilege network to coax a late acceptance for Charlie to a better college.
Admissions is a comic yet poignant look at motivations that are revealed in people in times of intense emotion. In this case, hypocrisy becomes apparent when the Masons high-minded commitment to diversity when their anxious young adult son faces an obstacle they find unacceptable.
Harmon’s script is not mean-spirited, but is packed with familiar liberal truisms and brimming with verbal sparring. Some dialogue in the monologues is not quite believable, but this is a satire, after all.
I do not really consider Admissions to be a play about racial equality. There are no people of color in it. We never get to see Perry, the biracial friend going to Yale, or his African-American father, who teaches English at the boarding school, although his credentials parallel those of Bill Mason, the head master.
Admissions is a play about the privilege, challenges, anxieties and frailties of being white in America today. It illustrates how complicated it is to talk about diversity. And why it will be harder still to ever achieve it.
Theatre Nova is giving Admissions its Michigan premiere. The one hour and 50-minute show (one 10-minute intermission) is well acted, well directed (David Wolber), and well-staged on a unique revolving set that pivots from the boarding school to the Mason’s home.
The play debuted last year in New York, and the timing of this production is impeccable given the recent uncovering of a scandal in which wealthy white parents had been paying middle men to bribe college officials at USC and other super competitive, brand-name schools. The actress Felicity Huffman doing some jail time for her part in trying to bribe her daughter into a good school.
Taking in Admissions is very enjoyable and provides much food for thought as Theatre Nova is less than a mile from the admissions office of the University of Michigan, sometimes referred to as the “Ivy of the Midwest,” boasting its increasingly low admissions rate as a percentage of applicants.
It will…probably…be well received by the white, highly educated, upper-middle class audiences in Ann Arbor — even when it gets uncomfortable for hitting close to home.