Joshua Harmon likes to write provocative plays. James P. Darvas likes to direct and produce provocative plays.
In the wake of the exposure of high-profile rich people “buying” their kids positions in prestige colleges, and during this week of the Whoopi Goldberg flap over what qualifies as race (and the question of whether the Holocaust was about race at all), it’s an aptly incendiary moment for “Admissions,” Harmon’s 2018 drama about white privilege and the parameters of equity, diversity and inclusion in America.
In its Off Broadway run, the piece won the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Play.
Harmon’s earlier creation, “Bad Jews” (seen at Cygnet Theatre in 2017), featured an internecine culture-clash of hierarchies among Jews of different stripes and religious intensities. In this play, white liberals are on the hotseat.
“Admissions,” set in 2015, shines its light on an exclusive New Hampshire college-prep school.
In the Mason family, Bill (Tom Steward), is the headmaster. His wife, Sherri Rosen-Mason (Wendy Waddell) is the head of admissions. And their son, Charlie (Devin Wade) is a high-performing senior anticipating a long-awaited acceptance to Yale.
The school’s Development Director, Roberta (Anna Sandor), who says she’s “not a race person,” is charged by Sherri with creating an admissions catalog that highlights the inclusivity of the school; that means featuring significantly more pictures of People of Color than in her initial attempt. Sherri is fiercely proud of her 15-year achievement of having expanded the school’s diversity from 4% to 18%.
Sherri’s longtime friend, Ginnie (Holly Stephenson), has a mixed-race husband and a son, Perry, Charlie’s best bud, who has also applied to Yale. When Perry gets accepted and Charlie gets Deferred Admission, all hell breaks loose.
On a beautifully designed set (Felipe Ramirez), under Darvas’ astute and well-paced direction, the performances are uniformly excellent, each actor creating a finely chiseled character.
The cast is noticeably, intentionally, white. Each has a chance to espouse some position in the inflammatory discussion of who gets to have a seat at the American table, and what constitutes “fairness” in who succeeds and how. Who gets to make those decisions? And who, ultimately, is willing to give up their own pedigreed place in favor of someone less advantaged?
Every character (some exaggerated, most not, given the current state of our dis-Union) gets to unleash at least one intense emotional screed — of anger, entitlement, resentment, defensiveness or self-delusion, while inadvertently hurling grenades of racism, classism, misogyny — and of course, hypocrisy, the cornerstone of just about all these increasingly unlikable, privileged people.
These are debates that are taking place across America — in politics, academia, in neighborhoods and work environments.
How can equality be enhanced or achieved if folks can’t even agree on how to identify the various players? This piece may have been born a satire, but it feels painfully close to the bone in these anxious, troubled times
I defy you to see this explosive play and not question your own biases, or engage in some heated dialogue about where you stand on the issues of class, race, privilege, self-righteousness and institutionalized racism— within white liberal America. The play’s title, you might note, has a deliberate double meaning.
NOTE: All performers and staff at OSP are vaxxed and masked, as audiences are required to be. Still, given the reluctance of many San Diego theater critics to return to indoor productions at this time, the company was gracious enough to provide an extra performance, just for us, one night before opening. The production was in excellent shape. I’m very appreciative of OSP’s effort.
- “Admissions” runs through Feb. 27 at OnStage Playhouse, 291 Third Ave. in Chula Vista
- Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m.
- Running Time: 80 min.
- Tickets ($22-$25) are at 619-422-7787 or onstageplayhouse.org
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.