BWW Review: ADMISSIONS Educates Audiences With Examination of White Privilege
Admissions, a brand-new dramedy by playwright Joshua Harmon, provides a timely and realistic view into contemporary upper-middle-class liberalism, with its barbed humor and challenging subject matter. Political progressives Bill Mason (R. Ward Duffy) and Sherri Rosen-Mason (Henny Russell) work as Headmaster and Head of Admissions, respectively, at a prestigious New Hampshire prep school where Sherri's chief career objective has been to diversify the student body. Funnily enough, a large part of Sherri's on-the-job frustration comes from comic relief character Roberta (Barbara Kingsley), who is on the doorstep of retirement, and can't seem to create a catalog that represents the almost 20% students-of-color that Sherri has worked so hard to enroll.
When the Masons' son Charlie (Thom Niemann), who is one of the school's brightest students, announces that his application to Yale has been deferred, it causes anxiety not only for Charlie, but for Sherri and Bill, too. They have spent Charlie's whole life positioning him for Ivy League success. Not only that, but also Charlie's lifelong friend and classmate Perry, who is half-black, has been fully accepted at Yale. Presumably, says Charlie, on the basis of race. This causes Charlie to explode, alleging reverse discrimination, in a monologue that is impressively fiery, showcasing young-straight-white-male privilege at its finest. I'm not even going to sugar coat - it is extremely uncomfortable to watch. Niemann earns big applause right in the middle of the show for this monologue, and boy does he earn it, his intensity burning blistering holes in Charlie's passionate arguments. But as we settle in with this family, and with Charlie in particular, whom even Bill describes as a "spoiled white boy," "entitled," and (gasp!) "a Republican!" we know his character is going to grow. He must grow. Right?
When Perry's mom (and Sherri's friend) Ginnie Peters (Kate Udall) realizes the implications of Charlie's opinions, a wedge drives between the women as well. Questions of merit, self-worth, and yes, "reverse discrimination" come to light, as the family deals with the fallout. Luckily, Charlie does grow, but in doing so, he forces his parents to examine their own places at the table, and what they're willing to give up in order to make space for those who have been systematically oppressed. From their white upper-middle-class place of comfort, are they making the world a better place if it isn't actually costing them anything?
The entire cast is splendid under Steven Woolf's direction, bringing additional depth, dimension, and intentional fissures to Harmon's already fabulously complex characters. Niemann and Russell in particular, with their meaty monologues, contribute additional weight and heft to this script. Bill Clarke's scenic design is incredible, with Sherri's day-lit office at right, merging effortlessly into the Masons' contemporarily luxurious home at stage left. Lou Bird's costumes are varied and character-appropriate as well.
This play will stir you, not only with its cultural agitation but also with its comical genius in its pondering of complicated issues. "Is Penelope Cruz a person of color because she's from Spain? If so, then why not the French and Italians and their descendants? Who is a person of color? Who decides?"
In all its ugly honesty, Admissions scrutinizes progressivism, white privilege, power, hypocrisy, political correctness, tokenism, complicity, class, and guilt, and serves up a plateful of pointed self-reflection for those who claim to be inclusive, yet who benefit greatly from the effects of systematic racism. It asks outright, "What had to happen historically for us all to end up in this space?" And, "White guys run everything. Why is that?"
It also answers back. "If there are going to be new voices at the table, someone has to offer up his seat." And, "Life is not fair. It's miserably unfair."
Do take time to see this important show in the Studio Theatre at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis now through November 11. Come prepared to make your own admissions. For more information and tickets, visit http://www.repstl.org/events/detail/admissions.