Assumptions about race are challenged, often loudly, in Admissions, Joshua Harmon’s thought-provoking play at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Unfortunately, the impact is weakened by Daniel Aukin’s strange direction.
First up, the good thing about this production, the really good thing, is that it stars Jessica Hecht, one of New York’s strongest, most versatile actors. She is always a standout, even when she’s in a small television role as she was several years ago playing the divorcing wife of a sleazy state’s attorney for one episode of “The Good Wife.”
Now she is holding stage as Sherri Rosen-Mason, the admissions director of an elite New England prep school. Her drive to diversify the nearly all-white institution is an obsession. In her 15 years on the job she has increased minority enrollment to 18 percent from six percent.
“If no one fixates on it nothing would change,” she says to Roberta (Ann McDonough), an administrator in the development office who has accused her of seeing race rather than students.
But her liberal world of white privilege is shaken when her 17-year-old son, Charlie (Ben Edelman), her only child, is the one excluded, having been put on the deferred list for Yale while his best friend, Perry, who is biracial, is accepted. Charlie’s situation pits her maternal drive against her ideals as she has to face the truth that she has turned away plenty of Charlies for Perrys, and question what matters most, racial balance or individuals.
The questions raised are good ones, but I was hindered from fully entering their world by the casting — and overacting — of Edelman. I never for one moment felt I was looking at a high school senior. A college senior would have been a stretch. He looked like a 25-year-old man, which I found out later when I Googled him is more or less the case. His bio says he graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 2015.
With all the talented teenagers in New York, why did Aukin cast such an age-inappropriate actor? And then allow him to nearly foam at the mouth with racist anger in the pivotal scene when he learns his fate? All I saw was an obnoxious, overbearing young man rather than a hurt and angry high school student.
Andrew Garman plays Bill Mason, the husband and father in the equation. At first he’s disgusted by Charlie’s “racist, sexist screed.”
“It looks like we successfully raised a Republican,” he says. But his views change too after Charlie makes an abrupt, extremely liberal decision about his future.
While the questions raised are heavy, Harmon lightens them with lots of humor. My favorite scenes were those between Sherri and Roberta as they prepared the new school catalogue. Sherri chastises Roberta for choosing photos featuring only white students, which she feels will hinder her quest to admit even more minorities.
“If they don’t see anyone who looks like them they won’t apply,” she says.
Roberta tries again, this time including a photo of Perry, but Sherri doesn’t think he looks black enough. Roberta then pours through the course lists and finds an English class with two black girls in it. She arranges for the photographer and tells the teacher to expect him, only to arrive in the classroom and find that one of the girls is out sick. She has to make an excuse of why the photo can’t be taken that day. Sherri finally tells her to stage the photos. Hecht and McDonough play against each other well, with poor Roberta becoming ever more frustrated by her unrelenting boss.
Sally Murphy completes the cast as Ginnie, Perry’s mother and Sherri’s longtime friend who has her own experiences of both sides of the racial question in being married to a black man who is only a teacher at the school while Sherri’s husband, with lesser credentials, is the headmaster.