At Theater Wit by Dan Zeff
Chicago –If you are a parent with a child about to enter college it’s likely you have been preoccupied, perhaps for years, with trying to get your son or daughter into a top level, highly competitive, university. The issue got some startling headlines earlier this year when several people, some show business celebrities, were arrested for attempting to bribe their way into desirable colleges. Some were willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to secure a precious slot in an upcoming freshman class.
Joshua Harmon’s play “Admissions” anticipated this scandal by a year with his satire “Admissions,” now receiving a terrific production at Theater Wit. Actually, Harmon’s play doesn’t traffic in the criminality of huge bribes offered by famous people to get their offspring into a desired school. “Admissions” takes its audience into a much more recognizable world, one that probes issues of race and abuse of privilege to achieve goals through methods that most parents would accept as necessary, even at the cost of a little ethics fudging.
“Admissions” takes place at a upscale private prep school in New England. Sherri Rosen-Mason (Meighan Gerachis) is the school admissions director and her husband Bill (Stephen Walker) is the headmaster. Their son Charlie (Kyle Curry) is a senior ready for college and he has had his heart set on attending Yale. Charlie has built a strong academic record buttressed by impressive participation in extra curricular activities. So he is devastated, and outraged, to receive a letter from Yale stating that his admission application is being deferred, rather than accepted, all the more galling because Charlie’s best friend has been admitted.
The deferral sends Charlie on a tirade lasting more than 15 minutes as the lad unloads in white hot fury on the injustice of the deferral, claiming he is a victim of reverse discrimination because he is an upper-class white applicant unfairly displaced by less qualified applicants in the name of diversity. He is especially infuriated by his friend’s acceptance, attributing it to the friend’s racial background (his mother is white but his father, a school English teacher, is half black).
Later in the play Charlie makes a complete turnaround, announcing to his horrified parents that he has withdrawn his applications to several other high-end colleges. Charlie has decided to cede his possible place at a preferred college to some minority student who otherwise would be rejected because of financial limitations or a lesser academic record.
Charlie’s parents are appalled at Charlie’s outwardly laudable sacrifice. They insist that a high grade education is the keystone to success and Charlie’s well meaning idealism will adversely affect the rest of his life. His father points out that the world is unfair and if he has an edge as a member of the white upper class, so be it. It’s a competitive world out there and one seizes any edge at hand, whether it’s influential contacts, donations to a school, or the legacy network. Bill and Sherri talk like liberals but not when it comes to their son’s future. Their social and racial attitudes smell of hypocrisy, but Charlie’s education comes first.
At the beginning of the play, viewers (especially white liberals) may chuckle at the comic aspects of the diversity issue, smiling at Sherri’’s proud boast that she has raised the school’s student body minority representation from 6 percent to 18 percent. Later she celebrates with her husband the announcement that the percentage has risen to 20. Further displaying her diversity credentials, Sherrie complains to an underling that a school promotional brochure doesn’t contain enough photos of black students and criticizes one photo because a black student wasn’t black enough to firmly establish his racial bona fides. Apparently that validates Sherri in her own mind as a caring supporter of diversity.
But as the play progresses, viewers may start to squirm because Harmon raises issues that invade the audience’s comfort zone. How far would we go to get our child into a high ranking school. Sure, there may be more deserving applicants crowded out because they didn’t have Charlie’s advantages, but it’s a jungle out there. How many people in the audience have exploited their social or ethnic advantages in the great admissions war? They may be liberal, but not at the cost of their child’s future. And when Charlie announces he has decided to martyr himself on the altar of diversity, their parents play very rough with the boy.
Harmon is a master of writing high intensity scenes, with characters lashing out at each other in ferocious volleys of verbiage. Harmon wrote scenes in “Bad Jews” that fairly melted the paint off the Theater Wit walls during its record run a couple of seasons ago. “Admissions” turns into a sequence of boiling hot dialogues, drenched in profanity and emotion. But the exchanges aren’t just rant, they are filled with thought provoking and disturbing ideas that never allow the heated discourses to descend into noisy fustion. The characters speak from the heart, armed with their conviction that they are on the right (indeed, the only) side of the diversity issue, self interest triumphing over political correctness every time.
Director Jeremy Wechsler is perfectly attuned to Harmon’s dramatic sensibilities, as he showed in “Bad Jews.” Although much of “Admissions” is played at a feverish vocal pitch, the dialogue is always accessible. Charlie’s frenzied diatribe triggered by news of his Yale deferral runs to more than 15 minutes of articulate fury. It’s one of the great extended scenes I’ve seen in recent Chicagoland theater. The same can be said of the father’s scathing monologue that delivers some hard truths to his son when the Charlie announces he has decided to attend a community college rather than a prestigious school.
Perhaps the most telling moment in the play comes in an exchange between Sherri and Ginnie (India Whiteside), the mother of Charlie’s partly black son. Sherri implies that the woman’s son got his Yale admission because he was partly black. That leads to a steely response in which the mother states she has been fighting such insinuations of reverse discrimination his entire life. How many audience members have discounted African American success stories as examples of minorities getting a free ride at the cost of innocent whites?
Roberta (Judi Schindler), the elderly promotional brochure editor working for Sherri, gets laughs over her confusion about how to illustrate blacks in the school publication. The woman’s perplexity may be funny but her puzzlement is another example of the arbitrary perceptions of diversity in modern society.
The physical production fits neatly on the intimate Theater Wit stage. Jose Manuel Diaz-Soto designed a two part set of a living room in the foreground and a rear computer room that recedes and advances as the scenes progress. Jessica Neil designed the lighting, Kotryna Hilko the costumes, and Tony Bruno the sound and original music.
“Admissions” runs 90 minutes without an intermission. That’s plenty of time for the playwright to explore hugely relevant social issues, leaving the audience both unsettled and stimulated. The play sometimes abandons narrative for high-intensity talking points, but the play never turns static or preachy. Thinking viewers will depart Theater Wit with minds churning and preconceived ideas about race and education severely shaken.
The play gets a rating of.
“Admissions” runs through May 12 at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont Avenue. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $12 to $48. Call (773) 975-8150 or visit www.TheaterWit.org.