Sunday, April 15, 2018

Review of "Admissions"

The question of white privilege and its collision with the college admission system is haphazardly examined in Joshua Harmon’s unfulfilling play Admissions.

The story revolves around Charlie Mason, a senior at an elite New England Preparatory School where his mother is the Director of Admissions and his father is the Dean of the institution.  He and his best friend, the offspring of a mixed marriage, have both applied to Yale University.  The friend gets in and Charlie does not.  This sets off a chain of events that only skims the surface of the agonizing admissions process and heartbreaking aftermath once decision letters arrive in the mail.  Friendships are also recalibrated and views on diversity and privilege are debated.

The concluding scenes, where the son makes a bold gesture, naïve and reactionary as it appears, nonetheless exposes the hypocrisy of his parents and their sorrowful view of higher education in this country.

Mr. Harmon has attempted to tackle a highly volatile issue.  As someone that has spent over 35 years in higher education, including Admissions, I know this process still continues to confound and anger applicants and parents today.  There is plenty of moralizing and soul-searching in the production, but the problem is many of the specifics fixated on by the characters are not significant.  For example, there is a long diatribe about how being passed over for Editor of the school newspaper was critical for Charlie’s admission chances.  When, in today’s world, many, many applicants to the Ivy League have incredibly high SAT scores, a better then 4.0 high school grade point average and eye-opening extra-curricular activities not making Editor-in-Chief is trivial.  Whether a student checking the “Black” box under ethnicity gives them a huge advantage is also very overplayed.

During the show, Charlie’s parents fret about their son’s future and what they can do to help him be admitted to any upper tier school.  You wonder how much or how little his parents, who know the in’s and outs of the admissions process, prepared him for this journey.  Also, wouldn’t the Director of Admissions and the Dean at an elite Prep School know people at said schools?  Couldn’t they call in a favor, especially for their son?

For audience members, unfamiliar with higher education practices the situations and dialogue may seem jarring and provocative.  But the circumstances addressed mask what could have been a more honest exploration of important issues only touched upon in this production.

The cast is fine, but the way their characters are written and directed produce mixed results.  Jessica Hecht’s Admissions Director, Sherri Rosen-Mason, is hard to read.  She is a strong, task oriented professional with little affect at her office, but her persona at home is a cloying, worrisome housewife.  Andrew Garman, her husband Bill, comes across as a stereotypical head of a tweedy New England Preparatory School who, at home, has little patience for what he sees as a whiny, self-righteous son.  Ben Edelman, as Charlie Luther Mason, is highly animated and captures the anger of a high school senior facing significant rejection, probably for the first time.  His performance would have been more effective with less histrionics, but the raw emotions are there.  Ann McDonough, as Roberta, the nearly retired Office of Development employee, is the most fully realized character.  She is earnest and forthright as she tries to satisfy Sherri’s ambiguous instructions for a more diversified student presence in the school catalog.  The actress exudes honesty and genuineness over her confusion and inquisitiveness.  She is exasperated, combative, and yearning to understand the changing world around her.  Sally Murphy as Sherri’s friend Ginnie Peters is not as fully rounded as the other characters.  She also appears younger then her dear friend as opposed to coming across as a peer.  Ms. Murphy gives a carefree gloss to her role until an impactful scene late in the show.

For the most part, Director Daniel Aukin utilizes too much yelling and volatility as a way for characters to get their points across.   The message of the show and their underlying themes might have been more compelling with a greater degree of contemplation.  However, the long monologue delivered by Charlie when he learns about his admissions decision, while over-the-top, is an appropriate, soulful yowl from an angst-ridden 18-year-old.  The best scenes in the play occur between Sherri and Roberta where they thrust and parry over diversity and strong-held beliefs.  They demonstrate the ambiguity, misinterpretation and the falsehood of admissions practices.  They are taut, and well-paced.

Admissions, a disappointing perspective on the higher education admissions process, playing at Lincoln Center through May 6th.

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