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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 12, 2018

Jessica Hecht, Andrew Garman, and Ben Edelman
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

One of the more ironic benefits of membership in the socio-economic cocoon known as "white privilege" is the luxury of being able to criticize the unfair advantages its status confers without ever having to actually give up any entitlements. This is the all-too-human paradox that Joshua Harmon explores in his insightful and often sharply funny new play, Admissions, opening tonight at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.

Meet the Masons. Sherri Rosen-Mason (Jessica Hecht) is in charge of admissions at Hillcrest, the New Hampshire prep school headed up by her husband Bill (Andrew Garman), and where their son Charlie (Ben Edelman) is a senior. The Masons are models of white progressivism, at least in the face they see in the mirror and proudly show the world. Sherri, in particular, is on a mission. She wants to increase the number of minority students at Hillcrest, bringing the total to perhaps as high as twenty percent of the population, well above the eight percent she met with when she first came to the school 15 years earlier. It is that goal that is gnawing at her when we first meet her, berating one of the staff members, Roberta (Ann McDonough), who has the responsibility of preparing the school's catalog.

Sherri is livid over the low representation of non-white students and faculty among the photographs in the draft of the new edition. "Who," she asks pointedly, "would want to be the only Black or Hispanic student in some far-away boarding school where no one looks like them?" Few would criticize her position on this. Her stance seems altogether earnest, a reflection of her life's work. Yet her commitment to the underserved will be sorely tested when her son fails to get admitted into Yale while his good friend Perry, who is of mixed race, is accepted.

One of the real strengths of the play is that, while it certainly exaggerates things in order to support its theme, it withholds skewering its central characters with claw-and-fang accusations of hypocrisy. Rather more smartly, it puts that angry reproach into the mouth of a 17-year-old boy who has not quite learned that no one fits easily into one of the two rigid categories of right and wrong. When Charlie comes home, full of hurt and anger, he goes into a window-shattering tirade against the price he feels he is being forced to pay for being white, as well as for being male (he has lost out to the editorship of the school newspaper to a female student he is certain is far less qualified). Does making a place at the table, he demands to know, mean there is no longer a place for him? Charlie's father is thunderstruck and calls Charlie a "racist spoiled little shit." But Sherri is more sympathetic to his point of view. Later, she manages to put her foot in her mouth by suggesting to Perry's mother (Sally Murphy) that perhaps Charlie has a point, and that Perry's racial status gave him a boost up over her son.

The playwright has some additional twists to add. Later, a cooled-off Charlie recommits to being the son his parents raised him to be by disavowing the position of power and privilege that are his by birth. He rescinds all of his other college applications and offers to donate his tuition to establish a minority scholarship at Hillcrest. It is a thrilling gesture from the audience's perspective, but his parents' reaction is not quite what Charlie expects.

As a playwright, Joshua Harmon has shown a flair for staying just this side of unmitigated browbeating social satire in plays like Bad Jews and Significant Other. His characters are flawed but quite recognizable as people we might know in real life, possibly even identify with. I do wonder how it might have affected the tone of the production if one or more of the characters (other than Charlie's friend Perry, who does not actually put in an appearance) were African American. But under Daniel Aukin's direction, it is good to see Jessica Hecht avoiding what too often comes off as an overly dramatic, mannered performance style in favor of one that is believably naturalistic. Ben Edelman also does a fine job in capturing the spirit of roiling adolescence, especially in his two big passionate speeches that espouse diametrically opposing points of view. Altogether, Admissions, running about 100 minutes in length, is a well-paced, even-handed exploration of white privilege among imperfect liberal allies of social justice causes.

Through April 29
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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