One of the highlights of this work is that for around 15 minutes one is treated to a hysterically funny and deadly serious non-stop howl of outrage from a college-bound senior (a deliriously evocative Ephraim Birney as Charlie Mason); he doesn’t seem to take a breath as this torrent crashes into and around the audience and the play itself. The other sublime pleasure is watching the slyly befuddled Roberta (Sarah Marshall) as a sort of legacy administrator at this second-tier boarding school in New Hampshire. With her greying curls and frumpy clothes Roberta cleverly boxes in the dean of admissions, Sherri Mason (Meg Gibson), leading her closer to some bedrock truths. But it’s Sherri’s son Charlie that almost finishes the job.
One of the highlights . . . is that for around 15 minutes one is treated to a hysterically funny and deadly serious non-stop howl of outrage . . .
At its deepest, darkest heart, “Admissions” is about hypocrisy and tribalism. It is also very, very funny. Using the vehicle of college admissions, It asks how far will you go to ensure your child’s success? It also asks just how sincere are your ethics and values when they clash with said child’s prospects and our egos (after all, isn’t the college our kids get into a total reflection on us?). And then we get to watch those ethics and values go flying out the window, as the parents in question tie themselves into knots trying to rationalize/justify their privilege.
The show is aimed straight at the kind of pieties that “woke” white people espouse, particularly when they have nothing meaningful on the line. Not that they realize that in the beginning. Bill Mason (Kevin Kilner) is the headmaster of a co-ed boarding school; his wife Sherri is the admissions dean who is proud of having achieved 18 percent minority representation in the student body (up from 6 percent). If they can come up with the money for a scholarship, they can up that number of diverse students to 20. Of course, what remains directly unsaid is that in order to prove that vis-à-vis the new admissions
But the play really heats up when Charlie’s best friend Perry (who is biracial) gets accepted at Yale while the slightly higher-achieving Charlie is waitlisted. This is the first time his belief in meritocracy and equality are shaken (basically the first time life has been unfair). His mother’s best friend happens to be Perry’s mother, Ginnie Peters (a very dignified Marni Penning), who is white (her husband is biracial). We never actually see people of color in the show and it may not even be that relevant—this show is meant to make the audience uncomfortable and reflective without asking marginalized groups to take responsibility for educating everyone.
When Charlie erupts with one of the most manic, quick-witted, vulgar and hysterical screeds I have ever witnessed, his father reacts by shaming him. Charlie takes this to heart and comes up with a solution to the scholarship issue and his own future that lays bare the hollowness of his parents’ beliefs. In the meantime, after some charged truths are dropped over racial identity and equality, Ginnie has ended her friendship with Sherri; and in a cosmically tone-deaf display of entitlement, Sherri then asks Ginnie for help regarding Charlie’s college prospects. Penning’s look of disbelief and slight recoil, as well as that flat, final no, are eloquent.
“Admissions” is written by Joshua Harmon, who also wrote the equally funny and trenchant “Bad Jews” which Studio produced in the 2014-15 season and then brought back in 2015-2016. Just as “Bad Jews” explored the intersection of entitlement, privilege
“If there are going to be new voices at the table,” Charlie says in the play, “someone has to stand up and offer someone else his seat.” This pretty much encapsulates the play—it would be nice if there was enough space for everybody to pull up a chair and be included, but given the realities of our society, that’s not going to happen with a real commitment. And how much are any of us really prepared to commit to? When Charlie starts that epic rant, many of the audience are chuckling and nodding; by the time he gets to the end and storms up the stairs to his room, you can see the audience visibly drawing back. That discomfort at recognizing something unpalatable in ourselves without totally alienating the audience is genius. This is a play with a lot to say and the ride is funny, raucous, sad and true.
Advisory: Some very frank language.
Running Time: Approximately 120 minutes with no intermission.
“Admissions” runs from January 16 – February 17, 2019, at Studio Theatre, Washington, DC. For more information, please click here.