By Karen Isaacs
Admissions, the new play by Joshua Harmon,, the author of Bad Jews and Significant Other, attempts to deal with an interesting subject. How do those individuals who support and promote diversity handle the results of their support when it impacts them personally? Or the even larger question, what happens when a social movement you support is going to be detrimental to you or someone you love?
In Admissions which played on LIncoln Center’s Mitizi Newhouse Theatre, we have parents, both private educators (he’s the headmaster and she is the admissions director) who support the idea of diversity. She has worked tirelessly to increase the minority population; the school is now nearing 15 percent). Their son, Charlie, is a senior and in the fall of his senior year, the early decision letters arrive. To his and their dismay, he did get early acceptance to Yale. His good friend who is biracial did get accepted.
Charlie is upset. He has already had a disappointment during the fall. He was in line to be named editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, but the person in charge selected a minority girl for the position.
In act one, Charlie rails against the idea that his opportunities are limited because past discrimination occurred. Why should he suffer for the faults of others? It is a long rant. His mother, Sherri, is disappointed in what has occurred. She also feels it is unfair. Charlie is convinced that his friend was not as worthy a candidate for early acceptance as he was; that his biracial status was what the difference.
The father, Bill, views his son’s statements as reflecting “sniveling drivel” and tells him, in effect, “that’s the way the world works. Get over it.”
As the play progresses, the issue evolves but don’t really move forward.
Charlie has a complete change of attitude and heart, which may be indicative of the volatility of the opinions and views of an 18-year-old. His new decision puts his parents in an even more uncomfortable position: do they go along with what they feel is a self-destructive, immature choice or force him to agree to their desires?
Along the way, Sherri has to deal with the friend’s mother (Roberta) – who, when she learns that Charlie feels her son was accepted only because of race, is very upset.
In addition, we have Sherri dealing with an older woman, Ginnie, who works in the Development office and who is responsible for publication of the school promotional materials.
Harmon attempts to raise some interesting issues, particularly in the setting of the elite prep school. What is meant by diversity? It seems that Sherri is focusing exclusively on race/ethnicity and ignoring economic diversity. She is counting among her “diverse” successes, the son of a South American ambassador, the daughter of wealthy parents in India, and a son of wealthy Arab parents. While these students may represent ethnic diversity, they all come from backgrounds of privilege.
One of the funniest parts of the play is when Sherri is talking with Ginnie about the photos in the upcoming publication. She is telling Ginnie that the photos should reflect this new diversity, but then complains that one of the students who does represent diversity, doesn’t look like he does. Ginnie is obviously confused.
Harmon is trying to point out some of the absurdities that become part of the debate and the process. For those in academic settings, the whole thing seems contrived and unrealistic.
Director Daniel Aukin has made it has realistic as possible, with the help of an excellent cast. Ben Edelman plays the volatile teenager with total commitment. Whether he is ranting against the injustice of using ethnicity as a determining or the opposite side that he must pay for the past injustices, he is totally convinced.
Jessica Hecht is fine as Sherri, who seems so proud of her achievements and doesn’t recognize the hypocrisy in her “mother bear” attitude about the effect on her son. Andrew Garman is good as the father who has little patience for his son’s rants.
Sally Murphy is the older, befuddled Ginnie. She doesn’t quite get what all the fuss is about and is totally confused by Sherri’s seemingly contradictory demands.
Harmon has promise as a playwright though I’ve found his previous works, Bad Jews and Significant Other, too often go for the obvious when much more could be explored.