NEW YORK — In her 15 years as the head of admissions at Hillcrest, a not-quite-first-tier boarding school in New Hampshire, Sherri Rosen-Mason has increased the student body’s diversity quotient threefold...
That’s a daring choice for a play about racial representation, but it’s a dare that pays off. Despite some flaws common to its genre, “Admissions” is an extraordinarily useful and excruciating satire — of the left, by the left, for the left — for today.
The satire is largely aimed at the kind of pieties about inclusion that are espoused by woke white liberals. In “Admissions,” these liberals include not just smug Sherri (Jessica Hecht) and Bill (Andrew Garman) but also their excitable teenage son (Ben Edelman), a high-achieving senior at Hillcrest.
Named Charlie Luther Mason — the “Luther,” naturally, for Martin Luther King — he is by upbringing if not by temperament a believer in the amicable coexistence of meritocracy and diversity. But when he is deferred from his holy of holies, Yale — and, worse, when his best friend, Perry, gets in — that faith instantly crumbles. After all, Perry’s SAT scores weren’t as good, and he takes only two AP classes while Charlie takes three.
Is it relevant to add that Perry is black?
Actually, Perry’s mother, Ginnie (Sally Murphy), is white, and his father, Don, an English instructor at Hillcrest, is biracial. (We do not meet Perry or Don.) But who gets to “count” as diverse is one of the play’s horrible-hilarious wrangles. In an argument with Roberta, a member of Hillcrest’s development staff, Sherri insists that the school’s admissions catalog must depict a student body that is visually diverse — so Perry, who is light-skinned, doesn’t count. To comply, Roberta (Ann McDonough) has to stage photos that feature recognizably dark-skinned students, reading “The Bluest Eye” no less.
Perry may not be black enough for the catalog, but Charlie certainly thinks he was black enough for Yale, and accepted for that reason. In an astonishing 17-minute howl of disappointment, he undoes a lifetime of indoctrination as he dissects the logical fallacies on which, he feels, his parents’ values — and Yale’s, and Hillcrest’s — are based.
Is Penélope Cruz a person of color? Is Kim Kardashian? If so, why isn’t, say, Marion Cotillard? And why does Perry’s mother act as if “it’s this huge achievement that a not totally white baby popped out of her vagina”? Should white people hate white people?
The evening I saw it, this line of thought had the audience roaring and clapping and then seeming to want to retract both responses as Charlie veered into ever more uncomfortable ideas.
That’s good satire at work, causing us to think critically about people we don’t at first recognize as images of ourselves. And the discomfort only deepens when Charlie, stung by his parents’ reaction to his tirade — his father calls him a spoiled brat — reconsiders his position and makes a startling decision.
“If there are going to be new voices at the table,” he says later in the play, “someone has to stand up and offer someone else his seat.” By a method I will not spoil, Charlie proposes to do for diversity what his parents only give the appearance of doing, and in the process reinvent himself as a Great White Martyr.
But martyrs are not always as determined as mothers, and Sherri’s tolerance turns out to be finite. Her assumptions of privilege, however unexamined, will not be denied. The crux of Harmon’s argument, which is as tightly constructed as a finger-trap toy — almost every piece of information supplied at the start pays off by the end — is that hypocrisy may look a lot like love.
Satires don’t usually go there. Recent racial comedies, like Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “An Octoroon” and Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park,” have been built on ludicrously bad behavior, and let the results speak for themselves. “Admissions” is less extreme but also, as a result, harder to put across. The characters are caught somewhere between well-observed types and absurd caricatures. Sherri’s mama bear ferocity is necessary to turn the plot, just as Charlie’s hysteria about Yale is, but in real life both would be subtler. Of course, in real life this plot wouldn’t happen.
That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen onstage. As in his previous plays “Bad Jews” and “Significant Other,” Harmon is admirably unafraid of portraying incorrectness in the guise of sour comedy. In a way, Charlie is a combination of Daphna, the relentless scold of “Bad Jews,” and Jordan, the whiny wallflower of “Significant Other.” But “Admissions” is even better for being about something substantially larger than one character’s unhappiness.
Still, I’m not sure that Daniel Aukin’s warm and intermittently rollicking production finds the right tone. Though there are moments in which the mere placement of bodies on the Newhouse’s thrust stage is enough to make you anxious, there are too many others that seem to pull back from the blinding clarity that’s needed. (Mark Barton’s lighting is way too gentle.) When the actors, generally working in a naturalistic vein, tear into their characters’ most unhinged moments they seem to be grinding gears. You find yourself questioning the likelihood of their behavior when, ideally, you would be too breathless to study it.
No matter. One of the things the theater should be doing today, and rarely does, is lancing the boil of our own self-deception. “Admissions,” as that pun of a title suggests, is a kind of confessional, except that no forgiveness is offered, or deserved.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.