By Jil Picariello, Theater Editor, March 13, 2018
Let’s give playwright Joshua Harmon a whole lot of credit for taking on the hot-button issue of diversity without preaching or pulling any punches. The main characters, although underwritten, don’t always say and do what you expect them to, and they’re tackling the topic from both the philosophical and personal points of view.
Sherri (Jessica Hecht), the head of admissions at a posh New England boarding school, has been laboring mightily for many years to diversify the student body. Her husband, Bill (Andrew Garman), the head of the school, supports her in this mission. The only admissions staff member we meet, Roberta (Ann McDonough), gets what are clearly all-too-frequent lectures on the importance of making the student body as diverse as the nation as a whole.
The crowning achievement of Sherri’s career is within her grasp—one-fifth of the student body is on the verge of being composed of students of color. But something happens to spoil her enjoyment of the fruits of her labor. Her son, Charlie (Ben Edelman), a senior at the school, is denied his lifelong dream of going to Yale. Charlie’s application is wait-listed, while his mixed-race best friend Perry gets in.
Galling? To Charlie, yes. Problematic? To Sherri, yes. And to Perry’s mom, Ginnie (Sally Murphy), who also works at the school along with her husband, the implication that Perry’s race somehow advantaged him is not only hurtful, it is infuriating.
Interestingly, we never get to meet Perry or his dad, which makes the five-member cast as white as the student body was before Sherri’s efforts began. At least, as Sherri points out, she’s half Jewish. Who qualifies as a member of a minority and who does not is one of the most incisive and savagely parodied themes of the play. Is Kim Kardashian a person of color? Is Penelope Cruz? Marion Cotillard?
Too much else, however, misses the mark. Roberta, for example, is absurdly (or deliberately) obtuse. She presents first an admissions brochure that is nearly all white. When she points to a Hispanic student, Sherri points out that the kid doesn’t “read” as a person of color and Roberta doesn’t seem to get why that matters. Could she really be that dense?
Other performances are uneven as well. Jessica Hecht plays Sherri as oddly stiff, both emotionally and literally. She stands with her arms held flat at her sides and recites line after line with the same inflection. When other characters speak she looks away from them, staring blankly into the distance. It seems an odd choice—if it’s a choice—and makes Sherri appear emotion-less, almost autistic. Her son, on the other hand, overdoes the emotions. His performance is well shaded, but there’s too much of the schlumpy teenage blob to make his Ivy League aspirations credible.
The themes are compelling, and no one is right, no one is wrong, and no one is spared. Liberal pieties and the usual conservative demons are equally exposed and savaged. When Charlie expresses (in a long—seventeen minutes!—and borderline brilliant rant) his disgust at how the system seems to work against him, his father calls him a spoiled brat. Charlie’s reaction to that is the most startling and unforeseen turn in the story, and something that will keep you thinking for a while.
There are no bad guys and good guys in the story, which make it more real, but maybe also make it less powerful. Does it not go far enough? Does it go too far? It’s close to the mark, but not all the way there.
Admissions presented by Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65th Street. Running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission. Performances through April 29, 2018. Written by Joshua Harmon. Directed by Daniel Aukin; set design by Riccardo Hernandez; costume design by Toni-Leslie James; lighting design by Mark Barton; sound design by Ryan Rumery. Cast: Ben Edelman, Andrew Garman, Jessica Hecht, Ann McDonough, Sally Murphy.
Cover: Jessica Hecht, Andrew Garman, and Ben Edelman in ‘Admissions;’ photo: Jeremy Daniel.