BWW Review: ADMISSIONS: Biting Comedy Asks You to Check Your Privilege
Written by Joshua Harmon, Directed by Paul Daigneault; Assistant Director, Kira Cowan Troilo; Scenic Design, Eric Levenson; Costume Design, Charles Schoonmaker; Lighting Design, Karen Perlow; Original Music & Sound Design, Dewey Dellay; Production Stage Manager, Stephen MacDonald; Assistant Stage Manager, Erica Marie Rabito; Props Master, Matthew Robert
Performances through November 30 at SpeakEasy Stage Company, Roberts Studio Theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 618-933-8600 or www.SpeakEasyStage.com
It's probably just a coincidence, but two fine plays currently running at two award-winning regional theaters share an unusual commonality. Both focus on the issue of white privilege and the prevailing attitude that acknowledging its existence will end it. In The Thanksgiving Play at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, the idea is to honor Native Americans in an elementary school play without benefit of any of them participating. In Admissions, receiving its Boston premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company, a couple of white liberal educators work hard to expand racial diversity at their small New England prep school, but their progressive values are tested when their exceptional son's Ivy League dreams are derailed. Remarkably, there are no indigenous people or people of color on stage in either production, an intentional, pointed omission by the playwrights.
Joshua Harmon, whose plays Bad Jews and Significant Other were previously staged at SpeakEasy, eschewed putting an actor of color in the position of speaking the point of view of a person of color with words written by a white playwright. However, he includes a few offstage characters who are referred to in ways that illustrate the cluelessness of Sherri (Maureen Keiller) and Bill Mason (Michael Kaye), the white liberal parents, and Sherri's close friend Ginnie (Marianna Bassham) is the mother and fierce protector of the unseen, biracial Perry. In fact, when Perry achieves early acceptance to Yale while his lifelong friend Charlie Mason (Nathan Malin) has his application deferred, it ignites a firestorm of rants and bad feelings between the friends and within the family that drive the dramatic arc of the play.
I hasten to add that Admissions is a comedy, but of the biting, hard-hitting variety. SpeakEasy's Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault directs a five-person cast that is incredibly well-equipped to nail the comedic quips and situations, while sinking their teeth into the play's meaty portions with the gusto of vampires at a midnight bloodmobile. Keiller portrays every nuance of her character authentically, starting with her scenes in the office when Sherri's frustration with an underling bubbles up, while she tries to maintain an even keel. Roberta (Cheryl McMahon, a treasure) can't satisfy Sherri's requirement to produce a catalogue that reflects the student population accurately, although she claims that she doesn't see race. Together, Keiller and McMahon convey the chasm that exists between the two women, with the former being the agent of change and the latter representing the old school, the way things have always been.
Sherri gets to relax her guard with Ginnie as they share the anticipation of their sons waiting for news from Yale. Anytime Keiller and Bassham are in a scene together, it feels like they are actually living in that situation, in that moment, and the way in which they handle the sudden shift in the relationship between the two women is totally credible. They're like two mama bears protecting their cubs, and hurt, disbelief, and anger register on their faces, in their voices, and in their body language. Once Sherri's maternal instincts take over, Keiller is fierce, even going rogue on Bill and doing whatever she needs to do to steer Charlie on the path she maps out. Kaye shows Bill's range of responses, sometimes pushing back, tearing into Charlie when he is disturbed by his attitude, and sometimes acquiescing when he knows he can't overcome Sherri's force. By the end, his face wordlessly expresses that he has no idea how they got there.
Malin, an undergraduate at Boston University, more than carries his weight in the company of four veteran equity actors. He captures each of Charlie's moods and mindsets, equally believable when his disappointment erupts into a mind-numbing monologue about the unfairness of life as seen through the eyes of a 17-year old, and, after a period of self-reflection, when he makes the argument that he can only be the change he wants to see in the world if he surrenders his privilege and steps aside. It is a remarkable transformation to watch Malin go from "Charlie-wronged" to "Charlie-world changer" without a false note, and his "parents" react accordingly.
A couple of interesting historical notes about the play are that it is set in the 2015-2016 academic year, and it opened Off-Broadway in March, 2018 and closed in May of that year, before both the quadrennial election and the highly-publicized college admissions scandal. Harmon could be seen as prescient in choosing the subject matter, but the issues of racism, diversity, and white privilege didn't just crop up in the last three years. However, their presence in civic (not always civil) discourse is relentless, and not always in a good way. In Admissions, the playwright and the SpeakEasy Stage Company start a compelling conversation and hope that the audience buys into it and keeps it going long after the ghost light is lit.