13 years ago, in a high school class debate about affirmative action, I was startled when an African American peer chimed in to explain his opposition to the policy—one designed to level the playing field for people of color in the face of historic injustices resulting in systemic barriers. He explained that its very existence would forever taint his own achievements because, in the eyes of white people, they could be written off as being “handed to him” due to the color of his skin.
It was a moment that presented a challenge to my deeply held, liberal philosophy—they type of challenge that rarely happens to most people in today’s media environment. Homing in on a cruel irony surrounding the architecture of a progressive social policy aimed at an institution by viewing it in the context of its interpersonal impact can be revelatory and very disquieting. And it is precisely what “Admissions”, a provocative new play by Joshua Harmon (“Significant Other”, “Bad Jews”) that opened tonight at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, does so well.
The play opens on the tony campus of Hillcrest, a private prep school in New Hampshire where Sherri Rosen-Mason—an exquisite, almost comically-bespectacled Jessica Hecht (“The Price”)—serves as a Head of Admissions singularly focused on increasing the diversity of the student body, after, of course, allowing for the annual admission of unremarkable white kids whose parents are alumni or donors. In 15 years she’s reduced the percentage of white students on campus from 94% to 82%, alongside her cheerleading husband, Bill (Andrew Garman), the Headmaster.
The serenity of their sincerely held, and devoutly practiced, “white liberalism” is unexpectedly upended when their son, Charlie (a fantastic Ben Edelman), a senior at Hillcrest—and an only child groomed from birth for the Ivies—is waitlisted for admission to Yale University while his bi-racial best friend, the (purposefully) unseen Perry, is accepted. In a sprawling, manic monologue described as both “sexist” and “racist” by his own father, Charlie lashes out at the very system of admissions that his parents have dedicated their professional careers to upholding, pouting that it is “unfair” because he had “no special boxes to check”, and pointing an uncomfortable finger at the question of what gives when belief in a macro policy comes in conflict with a micro position.
Sherri unwittingly sums up this paradox as she pleads with her son: “we’re not talking about diversity, we’re talking about you”. Charlie comes to realize the two can’t be separated as he takes a bold stance (no spoilers here), piercing the shield of his parents’ performative liberalism, their safe taking of positions without having to make any personal sacrifice, and their dogmatic espousal of views as being right without having any readily available or convincing explanation for why. Charlie seeks both nuance and authenticity, and his character’s growth provides the most rewarding arc of the play.
Mr. Harmon is an incisive playwright who possesses a knack for crafting dialogue that sounds like people talking while simultaneously being rife with big, important ideas few can express as fluidly as his characters do. He especially excels at long, slightly unhinged, stream of consciousness monologues for young white men, and like his last play, “Significant Other”, tackles difficult and uncomfortable questions of self-conception and identity in a fast-changing society.
Mercifully set in 2015, avoiding cheap or cheesy temporal references, “Admissions” shines a light on a much side-barred conversation about whether the national discourse built around the construct of privilege, in all its forms, is alienating for those not on board and dehumanizing for all parties by reducing the richness of a person’s existence to an easy label. The play grapples with the question of whether there might somehow be a better way of dismantling the thicket of entrenched advantage, which no doubt exists, in order to achieve the desired end of equal opportunity for all people.
To put it bluntly: what is a liberal white person to do when faced with opportunity? Take it, and perpetuate a racist system, or forgo it, ceding hard work, future chances, and the ability to help change the system from the inside? Is any, or even every, opportunity given to an individual white person a setback for all people of color? Is the world really that zero sum, or is there a way for everyone to rise together? These good questions get no answers.
In a smart, subtle move by director Daniel Aukin, the play is staged such that the actors rarely look at each other as they speak, and are often positioned at great physical distance from one another, a reflection of the generational divides that exist among them and their individual inability to see each other free of labels or to admit to the fraught complexity and plain messiness of the issues facing them. After all, such admissions, ones that have the potential to upend one’s entire understanding of self, achievement, and ideology, are hard to make.
The play is punctuated by three meetings between Sherri and Roberta (the perfectly exasperated Ann McDonough), a dinosaur of the school’s development department, as they spar over the racial balance in photos of students in the annual admissions brochure. Roberta’s lack of sophistication in talking about race highlights the seeming superficiality of Sherri’s desire to make things look different, without actually being different—diversity for the sake of claiming one’s own devotion to diversity.
“Admissions” caps a season at the Newhouse that began with Dominique Morisseau’s fabulous “Pipeline”—this play’s negation—in which a black teenage boy at an elite prep school messes up once, and faces few chances for redemption at the opportunities he worked hard to achieve. Sherri, Bill, and Charlie, despite their quibbles, know that Charlie will be ok because, in the end, he cannot escape his privilege, no matter how hard he might try. And that is the most difficult admission of them all.
Bottom Line: “Admissions” is a provocative new play by Joshua Harmon that pierces the veil of “white liberalism” to reveal simmering interpersonal issues that contradict beliefs in institutional ideals. Smartly staged and exquisitely acted, this play poses uncomfortable but important questions about race, identity, and privilege as our country navigates an increasingly divisive and siloed discourse.
Lincoln Center Theater
at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre
150 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10065
Running Time: one hour, 45 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: March 12, 2018
Final Performance: April 29, 2018