New York City Theater
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
Joshua Harmon’s “Admissions” at Lincoln Center is the real thing, a provocative, compelling play that puts the screws to do-gooders who don’t realize the harm they may be doing. Harmon’s affection for his often foolish characters is tinged with negativity. Like the author’s highly successful “Bad Jews,” his new work is very funny and very serious, tricky and discomfiting, compassionate and caustic.
His characters try – oh, how they try -- to avoid hypocrisy. Liberality, tolerance, empathy all vie with pragmatism, ambition and self-aggrandizement. We both like (though not love) and dislike (though not despise) these multi-faceted characters.
It’s the academic year 2015-2016, the period between Christmas and Easter. (Birth to death to resurrection?) The scene is Hillcrest, a posh prep and boarding school in New Hampshire. Secular Jew Sherri Rosen-Adams, the head of admissions, is embroiled in publishing next year’s catalogue, an enticement to prospective students. Trouble is, the catalogue doesn’t mirror Hillcrest’s student body which, under Sherri’s 15 years of service, has diversified from five percent students of color to eighteen percent.
Directing Roberta, the catalogue’s editor, to re-do the brochure to include more photos of minority students, Sherri gets this rejoinder: “I don’t see color. . . . I’m not a race person. I don’t look at race. . . .You’re the one who seems to care about race.”
With the issues engaged, the chickens soon come home to roost. Sherri’s son, Charlie, a high-achieving Hillcrest senior, has his heart set on getting into Yale. So does his best friend, the biracial Perry. When Perry’s accepted and Charlie’s deferred, friendships are tested, relationships broken, plans made and destroyed.
Sherri and her equally liberal WASP husband, Bill, see Charlie’s rejection one way, Charlie another. In a school where “dead white men” like Herman Melville and his essential ”Moby-Dick” are no longer taught, affirmative action has caused irrevocable rifts. “Admissions,” in addition to its allure as a piece of domestic drama, is also something of a mystery, with surprises and reversals.
As Sherri, Jessica Hecht gives another of her superb interpretations of a woman out of touch with herself. Filling the play’s silences with turmoil, she’s the mother hen ultimately protecting her own. Ben Edelman is an explosive Charlie, his extended monologues outbursts of white-hot resentment. Ann McDonough’s Roberta is a gem of eccentric indecision, while Andrew Garman is loving yet critical as Bill, a father who’s eventually fed up with his own deals. Sally Murphy’s Ginnie, the friendly neighbor who’s also Perry’s mom, is a sharp truth-teller.
Daniel Aukin’s clarifying direction disguises the play’s undertones of bitterness and disappointment by emphasizing its more domestic side. That also goes for the understated technical credits: Riccardo Hernandez’s set, Mark Barton’s lighting and Toni Leslie-James’ costumes.
But Harmon’s stunning work only seems to be small-bore. Actually, it has a guilty kick to it as it dissects people who talk progressiveness more than they act to ensure it.
--David A. Rosenberg
March 24, 2018