SpeakEasy's "Admissions": Affirmative Factions

Nathan Malin, Maureen Keiller & Michael Kaye in "Admissions"
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

One can't help but offer an obvious tagline for the play Admissions by Joshua Harmon (Significant Other, Bad Jews): “ripped from the headlines”. Tempting as that would be, one would have to concede that Harmon goes beyond one's initial expectations, confirmed in the current production by SpeakEasy Stage Company, of what is arguably the playwright's most controversial (and best) work to date. On the surface, it's pellucidly clear that affirmative factions are at play, as are other tropes such as ultra-liberal guilt and white privilege (once again, we know who we are).

Cheryl McMahon in "Admissions"
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

The plot centers around two married staff members at a tony New Hampshire prep school, Hillcrest. The school's self-righteous Head of Admissions, Sherri Rosen-Mason (spot-on Maureen Keiller) is married to its Headmaster Bill (tightly wound Michael Kaye), and both are concerned for the future of their 17-year-old son Charlie Luther (Nathan Malin, in an exquisite turn) and his lifelong dream of attending Yale. Perry, one of Charlie's classmates, has been accepted into Yale in part based on his biracial ethnicity, compelling Charlie, who status is “deferred”, to vent about what he feels is fundamental unfairness, questioning what makes someone a person of color, what constitutes diversity, and who gets to decide. Also in the cast are Ginnie Peters (the superb Marianna Bassham), Perry's white mother (oddly, we never meet either Perry or his black father Don) and Roberta (the amusingly scatterbrained Cheryl McMahon), from the school's development staff. Eventually Charlie proposes a change he wants to see in his world, which his parents warn could sabotage his future. As noted in the program, virtually everyone in the play is a hypocrite at some point (or at least inconsistent). Moreover, no person on stage is a person of color (not unlike the conspicuous lack of Native American actors in The Thanksgiving Play now playing at Lyric Stage Company). Nonetheless, Harmon leaves one to form her or his own opinions about the concepts of equality, diversity and inclusion (or, acronymically speaking, EDI).

Michael Kaye & Nathan Malin in "Admissions"
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

As astutely Directed by Paul Daigneault, the Producing Artistic Director for SpeakEasy, this 2018 Off-Broadway Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards deserving winner as best play, (one of the top ten plays produced this season throughout the country), this satire is fast-paced, running at one hour and 45 intermission-less minutes (only one of several shows now on view at local theaters that essentially make one's commute longer than the plays themselves). The creative elements include inventive Scenic Design by Eric Levenson, apt Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker, effective Lighting Design by Karen Perlow, and fine Sound Design by Dewey Dellay.

Marianna Bassham & Maureen Keiller in "Admissions"
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

The play is problematic at times, such as Charlie's terrific seventeen-minute diatribe with the clincher: “If there are going to be new voices at the table, someone has to stand up and offer someone else his seat”. Asked if he is proud, he answers in the affirmative though doesn't reveal about what or whom he is proud. As Daigneault puts it in his program notes, Harmon doesn't feel he has to answer the questions he raises: “the real question of the play is: what happens when there is a deep rift between one's public values and private actions”. While the writing is sharp and witty, it's this wonderful cast and director who illustrate how thought-provoking theater can be. Great theater doesn't get much better than this; it's essential yet enjoyable homework.

Michael Kaye, Maureen Keiller & Nathan Malin in "Admissions"
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

One doesn't need to be a nuclear physicist to see the double entendre in the title or its resonance in tomorrow's headlines. Its theme of repetitious maneuverings remind one of several theatrical offerings now on local stages dealing with corrupt motives. In the end, one is tempted to add yet another tagline appropriate for Admissions from a quote variously attributed to Mary Queen of Scots (in Margaret Atwood's sequel to The Handmaid's Tale, the new novel The Testaments) as well as to Mark Twain:     
     “History doesn't repeat itself....

     ....but it rhymes”.

It is now matriculating at SpeakEasy through November 30th.

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