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Theatre in Review: Admissions (Lincoln Center Theater/Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater)

Jessica Hecht, Ann McDonough. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

If, as Martin Luther King said, the long arc of history bends toward justice, Joshua Harmon wants you to know that there are plenty of wrong turns and roadblocks along the way. In his Off-Broadway debut, Bad Jews, which dissected the state of American Judaism, especially in regard to support for Israel, Harmon displayed his adroitness at mowing down whole herds of sacred cows; this time, he captures in his headlights the administrators of a posh New Hampshire private school, who, in trying to diversify their student body, find themselves entangled in a web of contradictions and hidden agendas. Many points of view are expressed, all of them subjected to withering criticism; morally speaking, no one gets out alive.

Harmon starts stirring the pot in the opening scene: Sherri, the school's director of admissions (Jessica Hecht, a pillar of disapproval hidden behind an enormous pair of glasses), turns her subtly bullying manner on Roberta, the grandmotherly type who works in the development office. Roberta (Ann McDonough, looking like one of the woeful drabs in a Roz Chast cartoon) has produced a draft of the new admissions catalog and Sherri is not at all pleased. Her beef: The photo layouts don't show enough students of color.

Clearly, the two women have had this argument before. "I have worked like a dog for the last fifteen years so that the school looks a little bit more like the country in which it is situated," Sherri says, adding with no small pride that she has driven minority enrollment up from six to eighteen percent. Commandeering a calculator, she adds that, with only three photos out of fifty-two, the catalog shows them at the paltry rate of under six percent. Roberta, at the end of her rope, points out a photo of a black student that Sherri missed. Sherri explains that the youth is biracial and, at first glance, doesn't read as black. Roberta, near tears, says, "Last time you said more people of color, and that's what I tried to do, but, apparently, they were the wrong shade. So, what do you want, Sherri? More dark-skinned ones?"

Seeing Hecht's panicked response to this question is enough to justify a visit to Admissions, but soon the characters have bigger problems. Perry, the biracial boy in the photo, is the best friend of Charlie, Sherri's son. (Perry's father is a black faculty member.) The boys, who have been inseparable for years, have both applied to Yale. When the decision letters arrive, Perry is accepted and Charlie is on the wait list.

This would seem to be the mother of all First World problems, but Charlie, who clearly has been denied nothing in his young life, is inconsolable. Nobody composes arias of denunciation like Harmon and he gives Charlie a beaut, poured out to Sherri and her husband, Bill, the head of the school. It's composed of equal parts rage, entitlement, hilariously twisted logic, and slashing -- and accurate -- contempt for the hypocrisies of his little world. Convinced that his college dream was damaged by not landing the editorship of the school newspaper, he adds, "Objectively speaking, I'm Toni Morrison" in comparison to the female who got the job. Bouncing from point to point in almost stream-of-consciousness fashion -- somehow he works Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Sophia Loren, and Kim Kardashian into his argument -- he savages what he sees as an entirely subjective and ever-changing notion of diversity that is all-too-easily manipulated: Asian students don't get preferential treatment because they're already overrepresented in the halls of ivy, yet a Chilean student -- the son of an ambassador, no less -- gets to claim minority status, even though he carries the blood of Europeans who conquered and subjugated the native population. Charlie adds, "I got into the shit pile, too, even though my grandfather couldn't get into an Ivy League seventy years ago because they had super-intense quotas against Jews, but -- shocker! -- they found a new way to keep Jews out: They just made us white instead." None of this stops him from concluding with a mock Nazi salute. It's a deluxe screed, surely one of the biggest challenges posed to an actor this season, and Ben Edelman nails it with the fury of a Martin Luther nailing his ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg.

In most cases, this kind of oration would be enough for a climax, but, because this is a Joshua Harmon play, we don't have a chance to catch our collective breath before Bill launches into an equally scathing, if less elaborate, counterattack, deflating his offspring's grandiosity with a few sharp strokes, the gist of which is, "So you'll go to Dartmouth. You'll go to Duke. And you'll be fine. Because you're a white guy and you don't have Down syndrome."

This is only the beginning, for, as time goes by and the prospect of Yale continues to recede, Charlie makes a decision that will, ultimately, blow his family apart. Without giving it away, he calls his parents' bluff, forcing them to face exactly how deep their convictions run. In truth, this twist is a little hard to accept, and I'm not convinced that Edelman manages to totally put it over; then again, like everything else in the script, it's excellent fodder for post-theatre conversation, and it also cues an even more outrageously entertaining series of confrontations. The supreme irony of Admissions is that, for a play about the manners and vocabulary of political correctness, the characters can't stop expressing themselves in the most scalding fashion.

Daniel Aukin, the director, is something of a Harmon specialist, and he orchestrates the debates with plenty of brio, aided by the well-chosen cast. Hecht is hair-raisingly on target as Sherri, whether trying to explain how entering any college other than Yale will hobble Charlie's adult life, raging against a successful black alumnus who won't donate to the school ("No gratitude at all," she grouses, unaware of the patronizing subtext of her words), sticking her head in the freezer in a moment of crisis, and, finally, dropping her helicopter-mother ways and ordering Charlie about like a stevedore. Edelman incarnates adolescent rage in its purest form, especially when, fed up to the teeth with his parents, he collapses, face down, on the couch in a modified fetal position. Andrew Garman delivers his lines from low and outside, expertly underplaying as Bill tries to cope with his steely wife and infuriated son. (In one fraught moment, he refers to Sherri as the "award-winning rejecter of white boys.") Sally Murphy makes a couple of telling appearances as Perry's mother, whose friendship with Sherri dissipates in clouds of suspicion. McDonough makes an excellent foil for Hecht, especially when criticizing Sherri for lecturing the school's kitchen staff about its "ethnocentric meal plan." ("Kids like pizza. Period. They don't care what continent it comes from.") And note how McDonough's smiling face falls like a punctured soufflé the second Roberta gets outside of Sherri's line of vision.

To keep the arguments boiling, Aukin has gotten from his designers a sleek production that never stops for a second. Riccardo Hernandez's omnibus set can be either Sherri's office or her home, with a simple adjustment of Mark Barton's lighting; not a second is wasted on scene changes. Toni-Leslie James, the costume designer, has a sharp eye for the studiedly dumpy clothes favored by New England educators. Ryan Rumery's sound design evokes the life of the school offstage.

Indeed, everyone involved has come together to support Harmon's provocative, unsettling argument that achieving the ideal of true diversity may be a lot harder than it initially looks. "Call me naïve," Charlie says at one point, "but if people could make the world fairer without sacrificing anything, it would have happened by now." As all of the characters discover, striving simultaneously for a more just future while protecting their own flanks, diversity is an ideal that cuts two ways. -- David Barbour

(26 March 2018)

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