With diversity high on the current agendas of education, corporate conglomerates, the work place and, most visibly, show business, Joshua Harmon has fashioned a compelling new satire on this very potent subject called Admissions. It premiered a year ago at Lincoln Center, where it was a deserved success. It will be interesting to see whether its West End incarnation directed by David Aukin (who directed it in New York) will have a similar impact.
The setting is a well-to-do boarding school called Hillcrest in New Hampshire that, in the last few years, has switched from being an all-white campus to one of mixed ethnicity. So much so that the feisty, diversity-obsessed admissions administrator, Sherri Rosen-Mason (Alex Kingston), is proud of the fact that, under her aegis, the percentage of black students has risen from 6 to 18 and is climbing. Which is why she’s not at all happy with the proofs of the latest school prospectus and its lack of pictures showing black students.
For all her liberal beliefs, Sherri and her upstanding husband Bill (Andrew Woodall), who happens to be the head of Hillcrest, live comfortable lives of white privilege. They’re also blessed with an exceptionally brainy 17-year-old called Charlie (Ben Edelman), whose middle name is, appropriately, Luther.
The hitherto implacable foundations of the Mason family are shaken with a scale-9 Richter-style crisis when Charlie learns that his best friend Perry, who is biracial (white mother, black father) has managed to land a place at Yale while, shock-horror, his own application has been deferred. The news sends the outraged teenager into a demented 17-minute rant on sexism and racism, in the process of which he vociferously trounces the parental values on which he has been raised. A section of this show-stopping set piece also contains a hysterical riff on what constitutes a “person of color,” with references to Penelope Cruz, Kim Kardashian, Sophia Loren and Marion Cotillard.
The unsympathetic reaction he receives from his outraged father, who calls him a “spoiled little over-privileged brat” and denounces him for expecting life to be fair or to owe him a living, results in a dramatic change in his system of values – but not the kind of change that is acceptable to his parents, whose own values are hardly shy of privilege or status. It’s the sheer hypocrisy at the root of their beliefs that results in a line Harmon just couldn’t resist when he actually has Sherri remark in her defence that “some of my best friends are white.” It’s all very well to be liberal and progressive, the play is saying, just as long as there is no sacrifice or cost in the process. That’s the main point the playwright appears to be making, albeit with too heavy a hand at times.
In the main, though, it’s a witty, engaging evening that never flinches from its sensitive subject matter, and Aukin’s direction keeps it simmering along nicely. It boils over only once, and that’s in Charlie’s barnstorming rant. By now, Edelman, the only member of the original New York cast, should really have nailed it where pace, volume and vocal variation are concerned. But on the first night, much of the speech was unintelligible due to the exhausting ferocity of his delivery. A pity, as having now read the text it makes a lot more sense than he did. When he remembers to rein it in, Edelman can be quite compelling.
Sarah Hadland (looking at times far too young to be a mother of a 17-year-old son, the unseen Perry) and Woodall as Charlie’s father do the best they can with characters who could use more flesh and bone. Margot Leicester, an old-school employee responsible for designing and developing the college brochure, effectively registers her utter befuddlement when it comes to fulfilling Sherri’s politically correct agenda. As for Sherri herself – the play’s most plausible and fully rounded creation – Kingston is chillingly plausible as a woman juggling her grassroots sense of meritocracy with her liberal, conscience-consoling, feel-good championing of ethnic diversity.
Like his outstanding earlier play Bad Jews, there’s an intelligence at work here – flaws notwithstanding – that is always a pleasure to engage with. Well worth seeing.