United Kingdom Joshua Harmon’s Admissions: Trafalgar Studios, London. 16.3.2019. (CSa)
Director – Daniel Aukin
Set and Costume designer- Paul Wills
Lighting designer- Oliver Fenwick
Sound designer – Gregory Clarke
Sherri Rosen Mason – Alex Kingston
Roberta – Margot Leicester
Ginnie Peters – Sarah Hadland
Bill Mason – Andrew Woodall
Charlie Luther Mason – Ben Edelman
A coincidence or merely part of an historical progression? Last week, Operation Varsity Blues – a huge FBI-led college cheating scandal – was uncovered in the US. It alleges bribery and fraud by wealthy parents desperate to get their children into Ivy League schools, and willing to do anything to achieve it. At about the same time, Joshua Harmon’s highly topical play, Admissions, transferred to London’s Trafalgar Studios after a successful run at New York ‘s Lincoln Centre this time last year. Harmon’s last play, Bad Jews, examined religious faith and cultural identity within a liberal Jewish family. He uses the family setting again in his latest work. It provides a good context in which to explore pre-existing but less egregious examples of prejudice and hypocrisy within the US educational system: a system historically skewed to secure the admission of predominantly white, rich and privileged students to America’s top academic institutions.
Sherri Rosen Mason (well-realised by Alex Kingston) is the admissions officer at Hillcrest, a New Hampshire prep school. She proudly boasts to her elderly and world-weary administrator Roberta (sympathetically portrayed by Margot Leicester), that she has ‘worked like a dog’ over 15 years to increase the intake of students of colour from 4-19%. Poor Roberta is ordered to increase the number of students of colour from a mere 3 captured in the 53 photos in the school brochure to something more representative. ‘Do you not care if this school is diverse?’ asks Sherri reprovingly.
Would Sherri’s lofty educational ideals extend to her own son Charlie’s application to Yale? She and husband Bill (Andrew Woodall), who just happens to be Hillcrest’s acerbic headmaster, are the ultimate pushy parents. When they learn that Charlie has been deferred, and Charlie’s friend Perry – designated ‘black’ on account of his white mother Ginnie (Sarah Hadland) and biracial father – has been unconditionally accepted, we witness a familial meltdown of operatic proportions. The object of Sherri and Bill’s failed aspirations (for it’s all about their ambition), and the inevitable target of their increasing desperation, is their immature and headstrong son Charlie, played by the young American actor Ben Edelman.
As the play develops, we must deal with Charlie’s anger. We see him for the first time in the third scene, stomping into his parents’ comfortable open plan kitchen, or pounding up the staircase to his bedroom, and raging uncontrollably about the injustices of a system which preferred Perry (‘who ticked more boxes’) over him. At one point, in the course of a crazed monologue, he rails against the School’s decision, which he wildly attributes to a bias against whites generally and to his Jewish heritage in particular. ‘I would really like to meet the person who decides who counts as a person of colour and who doesn’t’, he fumes… ‘Cause my mom’s dad had to escape before like half his family was murdered by Nazis, but now when we all apply to college, I go in the shit pile [because]…they found a new way to keep Jews out. They made us white instead!’
Surprisingly, Charlie’s bitter disappointment meets with little sympathy from his so-called liberal parents. Dad puzzlingly, and without acknowledging an iota of responsibility, accuses his son of being ‘an overprivileged brat’ while Mum wonders aloud whether they have a contact at Yale who could somehow oil the wheels.
Most astonishing, though, is Charlie’s furious and unexplained turnabout in the play’s last 15 minutes, and the extreme nature of his parents anger in response.
Although Harmon’s fulminating characters lack subtlety, and differing points of view tend to take the form of bellowed harangues rather than modulated exchanges, there is much that rings uncomfortably true in Daniel Aukin’s production. Undeniable are the relevance and urgency of the matters under discussion, not least the role played by liberal whites in perpetuating a broken system. In this regard, the most recent allegations of bribery and corruption exposed by Operation Varsity Blues serve as the gravest examples.
For more information about Admissions click here.