As the election of Donald Trump unquestionably proved, there are plenty of white men in the world – economically privileged or not – who have come to see themselves as the “victims” of a society that, at times, tries to balance the scales of history by giving their places at the proverbial table to women and minorities. Some, as we have sadly learned, have taken unspeakable actions to express their rage (and I don’t just mean electing Trump), while others have reconsidered their positions.
In which camp the confused and angry 17-year-old private-school student Charlie Luther Mason (a remarkable Ben Edelman, making the most of two virtuoso monologues) – who finds himself denied early admission at Yale University – will ultimately land is at the heart of Joshua Harmon’s worthwhile new play Admissions, now at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre under the fleet direction of Daniel Aukin.
Harmon, who has written two of my favorite plays of recent seasons, Bad Jews and Significant Other, once again proves to be blisteringly funny, somewhat unpredictable and, above all, shockingly daring. His characters express gasp-inducing sentiments and statements about the world at large that many of us keep inside our heads and wouldn’t dare say out loud. And while the work is set in 2015-2016, long before the election of Trump or the current #MeToo movement, it feels extremely au courant.
For much of the Lincoln Center audience, the act of watching and listening to the early portions of Admissions can feel very uncomfortable. For what seems like hours, Charlie rails loudly against “losing” his spot at Yale to his (never-seen) bi-racial best friend Perry, an “unqualified” woman being chosen as the school paper’s editor-in-chief, and the ability of people from Spanish-speaking nations to consider themselves people of color rather than white no matter their origins. Unquestionably, Charlie may be unduly angry – it’s pretty clear he’ll easily get into another top-level college and likely end up in a position of power – but Harmon challenges us to wonder if he’s actually wrong.
Later, when Charlie gets out of his months-long funk and chooses to take a rather drastic action, Harmon places him (and us) in another quandary. Does a young man of his age have the right to fulfill his own destiny, or must he listen to the demands of his fierce mother, Sherri (the always believable, compulsively watchable Jessica Hecht) – rather conveniently, his school’s pro-diversity head of admissions – and father Bill (a surprisingly unpleasant Andrew Garman), the head of the ultra-tony Hillcrest school? Without giving too much away, Charlie isn’t the only one forced to question his values, as Sherri must choose whether to place principle over family.
While one must praise Harmon for holding up a mirror to our inner prejudices and making us look, one also can’t overlook some of the play’s glaringly structural flaws. Bill seems to detest his son from minute one, and while everyone knows teenage boys and their fathers aren’t always best friends, his enmity needs to be more firmly grounded. Although he treats Sherri somewhat better, I wondered whether such a strong woman would put up with his behavior – or just walk out the door.
Sherri’s longtime friendship with Perry’s mom, Ginnie (Sally Murphy, who plays the part as if she’s bipolar) – as well as its dissolution – feels a tad questionable too. The characters seem too radically different in their personalities to be so close, despite their sons’ friendship. And Harmon’s decision to never introduce us to the much-talked-about Perry or his dad Dan, an African American teacher at the school, feels more like a practical decision (it’s easier to produce a five-character play than a seven-character one) than one supported by the text. The only supporting character who rings entirely true is Roberta (a superb Ann McDonough), an older white woman who works for Sherri and is still grappling, in every sense, with the concept of diversity.
Only time will tell if Admissions is a play for the ages or strictly of the moment – all the better reason to enter its world while you still can.