BWW Review: ADMISSIONS, Trafalgar Studios
News emerged today that Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were among 50 wealthy people charged in a college cheating scam dubbed "Varsity Blues", in which they allegedly paid bribes of up to $6 million to secure places for their offspring at top universities.
In a strange twist of fate, the breaking story coincides with the UK opening of Joshua Harmon's incendiary satire Admissions, which demonstrates that even those with the most devout liberal principles about progress and fairness can falter when it comes to their own family and self-interest.
Sherri is the head of admissions at Hillcrest, an elite New Hampshire boarding school. During her 15-year tenure, she's increased the ethnic-minority student share from 6% to 18%, but her commitment to inclusion is challenged when her son Charlie doesn't get into Yale - and his friend Perry, whose father is biracial, does.
Harmon cleverly establishes Sherri's comfortably distanced stance in the opening scene of the play, in which she chastises older colleague Roberta for not featuring more students of colour in the school brochure. "I don't see colour," protests Roberta - before the pair get into a cringe-inducing tangle about not just featuring such students, but specifically those who visually "read" as ethnic minority.
It's the start of a brilliantly knotty drama about how we define diversity, who does or should benefit from positive discrimination, the distinction between something looking and being different, and whether positive change for some is ever possible without sacrifice from others.
That might sound earnest, but Harmon's writing is anything but; rather than cool debate, he places his characters in fierce conflict, with the issues refracted through personal identity and relationships - whether parent/child, spousal or friendships. And, as with his similarly confrontational Bad Jews, the audience is on the hook just as much as the characters.
"We've raised a Republican" is Sherri's horrified takeaway from Charlie's blistering monologue (an incredible tour de force by Ben Edelman, reprising his Off-Broadway performance) about quotas advantaging the generalised group "people of colour" and his confused, frustrated response as a "victimised" white man. There are definite echoes of Trump and our current culture wars.
When Charlie later swerves into a surprising decision, Sherri is forced to reckon with the effect on her son (whose middle name is Luther, as in MLK) of her celebration of affirmative action - while husband Bill, the school's no-nonsense head, instead labels Charlie a spoiled brat.
Notably, there are only white characters (and performers) in view - a decision that initially seems problematic, but then becomes its own comment on how this well-meaning but essentially insular group doesn't always comprehend its own privilege or hypocrisy. It also creates a likely reflection of many theatre audiences - and mine certainly did plenty of uncomfortable shifting and chuckling in embarrassed recognition.
Daniel Aukin's straight-through production sometimes struggles to maintain momentum between the thrilling bouts of verbal fisticuffs, as Harmon's play is most effective when in heightened style.
Edelman is the standout, showing how Charlie's declarations come from the muddled passion of a teenager staring to really grapple with how the world works - and, despite his stabs at independence, hurt that his parents might, unwittingly, be making it harder for him.
Alex Kingston nicely captures Sherri's initial smug assurance, but really comes into her own when she too can unleash a torrent of conflicted emotion. Sarah Hadland is excellent both as the over-involved yummy mummy, and Sherri's betrayed friend who has slightly more understanding of the devastating effects of racial discrimination.
As Bill, Andrew Woodall is a good match for Kingston's Sherri, more stubbornly stalwart in his worldview as hers is coming apart, while Margot Leicester wrings both humour and pathos out of blithe, un-PC Roberta's genuine bewilderment.
Paul Wills' gleaming white domestic set, complete with kitchen island and large staircase - the latter put to good use in several funny moments - underscores the family's casual affluence. Using it for Sherri's office too shows how her professional and personal lives are merging, but a line about closing the office door (when none is on stage) should really be excised.
Provocative, bracingly funny and persistently challenging, this is a drama with claws.
Admissions at Trafalgar Studios until 25 May, then touring
Photo credit: Johan Persson