BWW Review: Searing ADMISSIONS Shines at The Gamm
Joshua Harmon's ADMISSIONS is a play that wants to challenge well-meaning white people to reconsider how they seek to lift up people of color. That may make it seem like it's a slog, or like it's a bitter pill one should swallow, but thankfully the biting dialogue and exceptional performances all around make this 110 minute play zing by. Harmon does a great job of raising the stakes for all the players until the tension reaches a satisfying crescendo, but, in the end, the payoff isn't quite as satisfying as it could be. However, that could also be part of the point.
Sherri Rosen-Mason (Deb Martin) is the admissions officer at Hillcrest, an exclusive private high school in New Hampshire, and during her tenure at the institution, she has sought to increase the diversity among the student population. She seeks to make the school reflect the diversity of the nation, and is hopeful she will reach the 20% mark of non-white students by the end of the year. Her husband Bill (Jim O'Brien), is the head of school, and is fiercely liberal; and their son Charlie (Jacob Osbourne) is a student hoping for early admission to Yale. However, their views on increasing diversity in education are set aside when their white son is waitlisted.
Right from the beginning it is very clear that this play is going to pull no punches. The action opens with Rosen-Mason in conversation with Roberta (Wendy Overly) about how the catalog that goes out to prospective students doesn't feature as many diverse faces as the school actually contains. Overly steals every scene she is in as she tries to understand why a bi-racial student is black enough for admission to school, but not black enough to photograph as black for the catalog. The few scenes between Overly and Martin are absolutely hysterical as Martin seems to be trying every tactic under the sun to avoid saying anything that makes it sound like she's looking for racial quotas, while Overly tries to parse her dense subtext into plain English. Overly comes off as dippy, but well-meaning, and Martin is firmly grounded in her sense of herself as a good person.
In his Gamm debut, Jacob Osbourne is perfect as Charlie. He manages to comes across both as a believable teen who has had his dreams crushed, but also as someone who has taken the best of the lessons his parents have taught him about how to be an ally to those with fewer advantages firmly to heart. His eye-rolls at some of his parents' more self-righteous statements are spot-on, and his character is the member of the Mason family who you most want to root for, even though his parents mostly say the "right" things.
Jim O'Brien is excellent as Bill Mason, the patriarch who takes Charlie to task when Charlie's complaints take a step beyond petulance. O'Brien always has an air of affability as his default, which makes it all the more jarring when his attitude switches. Rounding out the cast is Karen Carpenter as Ginnie Peters, a family friend constantly clad in athleisure. She seems easy to dismiss at first, but Carpenter gets to deliver a heartbreaking moment toward the end that really resonates.
Sets by Patrick Lynch and costumes by Amanda Downing Carney perfectly create the world this play inhabits, right down to the all-white kitchen straight out of HGTV and Sherri's apron adorned with images of Frida Khalo. Every single detail is meticulously crafted in a way that is thoroughly satisfying.
Admissions is effective at poking holes in the notion of a liberal bubble, and how that actually plays out when real life gets messy, but there are times when it feels like it lets its characters off the hook a bit too easily. Possibly Harmon didn't want to completely alienate what (one assumes) are his target audience, but for a show that comes out swinging, it ends with a bit of a whimper, more than a bang. Even so, it's thought-provoking and laugh-out-loud funny, especially when performed by such an exceptional cast.
Admissions runs January 16-February 9 at The Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick, RI. Tickets are $45, $55 and $65; preview performances (January 16-19) are $33. Tickets: 401-723-4266 or gammtheatre.org.