The Uncomfortable Truth About Race and Class in Admissions
Joshua Harmon's new play takes on selective diversity and fashionable activism in elite education.
"This whole place is so white," complains a white woman in Admissions, Joshua Harmon's scorching new drama. She's referring to the private academy at the center of the play, but the line is pointedly directed at the house of the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. It may seem strange to you that a white woman would raise such a fuss about the whiteness of her surroundings — but probably not that strange if you travel in liberal circles in the United States.
Race is a sensitive issue in America, but that doesn't mean we should expect gentle treatment from Harmon, whose riotously indelicate Bad Jews has become one of the most produced plays in America. He brings his sonar for America's sore spots to Admissions, which torpedoes the toxic relationship between race and class inside the sorting hat of American privilege: college admissions.
Sherri Rosen-Mason (Jessica Hecht) is the head of admissions for Hillcrest, a private New England prep school. Her proudest achievement is taking the overwhelmingly white student body from 6 percent minority to nearly 20 percent. She chastises her coworker Roberta (Ann McDonough) for not reflecting that diversity in the forthcoming school brochure. Sherri understands the need to attract students of color by presenting a welcoming picture. At the same time, her husband Bill (Andrew Garman), who is headmaster, reminds her to keep a lookout for the applications of the children of wealthy alums and donors. You can't run an elite school without top-notch funding. But when their white son, Charlie (Ben Edelman), gets deferred from Yale and his half-black friend Perry gets accepted, Charlie suspects the New Haven equivalent of his mom is to blame.
Harmon firmly established himself as the lord of the rant in last season's Significant Other, and he's penned a doozy for Charlie. Edelman delivers this breathless aria of white male resentment with operatic self-pity and flawless diction, so that every word lands. Many in the audience are likely to react poorly to such privileged martyrdom, yet some of his questions about our racial taxonomy — why are the descendants of Europeans who colonized North America considered "white," while the descendants of Europeans who colonized South America considered "Latino"? — are difficult to ignore.
Unsurprisingly, Dad does ignore them, calling his son spoiled, racist, and (gasp!) a Republican (Garman plays Bill like a slightly more nuanced South Park character, which is about all he can be). But Mom is not so sure. She is highly sensitive to the plight of her Latinx students, whose names she pronounces as if she were a newscaster covering elections in Nicaragua. But she also wants the best for her son, as any mom would.
Hecht's portrayal of Sherri as an icy scold in the first scene gives us no indication that we will eventually warm to her, but we do. Hecht gives a recognizably human performance of a woman forced to confront the contradictions between her lifestyle and ideals, contradictions we all hold. Her true priorities come into sharp focus during her exchanges with Perry's mom, Ginnie (an aggressively woke Sally Murphy), and when Charlie declares his intention to make a truly radical choice about his future. We root for Charlie, while secretly identifying with Sherri.
Daniel Aukin helms an unexpectedly provocative production that masquerades as something far less threatening: Riccardo Hernandez's set looks like it could belong to any number of Mitzi productions over the last decade about upper-middle class white people with island kitchens and stemless wine glasses. Yet an exceedingly long staircase rising behind the cabinets is our first clue that the aim of this play is not pure realism. Ryan Rumery underscores the scene transitions with increasingly noticeable notes of tensions, so that the theater is practically vibrating by the last few scenes. Lighting designer Mark Barton accompanies these moments with a bump in the lighting. It all works marvelously to keep us in a state of sustained agitation.
Of course, a step back would lead you to conclude that everyone in this story will live, if not happily, at least comfortably ever after. Admissions would look a lot like a satire of bourgeois liberal hypocrisy if we didn't know how prevalent the feelings expressed onstage are. The Mason family's angst is firmly rooted in the knowledge that rather than being a tool for social advancement, higher education is the primary enforcement mechanism of a calcifying American class system.
Admissions daringly asks if our proudly touted accomplishments vis-à-vis "diversity" are really just a cover for keeping that oppressive system largely intact. Based on the winded look of the audience, it's a question that lands like a gut-punch to the American psyche.