Regional Reviews: Boston
Yes, Charlie is convinced. In an explosive comic monologue that shocks as much as it captivates, he gives full voice to the inherent unfairness of a process that favors racial quotas over individual hard work, railing about who counts as diverse and why white people are so offended by their own whiteness. It's electric writing, a knock-'em-dead aria delivered with fire and passion by the excellent Nathan Malin as Charlie. There were cheers, gasps, and applause at the performance I attendedjust the right mix of reactions for an entitled seventeen-year-old puzzling his way through unspoken questions out loud, and sometimes landing on a kernel of truth.
The college admissions processhard to ignore in the news cycle, from celebrity parents bribing their children's way in, to Harvard University's recent affirmative action victory in courtis Harmon's vehicle to explore the privileges and biases of this ostensibly progressive white family. Admissions, which originally premiered Off-Broadway in 2018, succeeds because it's not meant to be didactic. The play resists stacking the deck on any one side. We understand Charlie's father Bill's outrage at his son's volatile screed, but we also understand his mother Sherri's heartache at her boy's pain. Weighty questions about racial diversity aren't necessarily answered; Harmon uses these debates to probe the depthsboth hilarious and uncomfortableto which we'll go for our family.
Sherri Rosen-Mason (Maureen Keiller), our central character, is head of admissions at Hillcrest School, a respectable private boarding school run by her husband Bill (Michael Kaye), where Charlie is about to graduate. She has worked tirelessly for 15 years to increase diversity at their predominantly white school, and the possibility of reaching 20 percent students of color is reason to uncork an expensive bottle of wine. Keiller, who anchors a strong cast, lets us see Sherri's insecurities in a way that nicely balances the play's exaggerated comic flourishes.
Sherri is proud of her initiatives to make the campus more welcoming. But she's also savvy enough to know how the system works, and what that Yale rejection means for Charlie. "If you don't have a school like Yale or Harvard on your resume, that actually puts a ceiling on what's possible in your life," she tells her husband. That comment reeks of incredible privilege, so it's to the playwright's credit that we sympathize with her maternal instincts. No matter how principled her career focus to expand the playing field, she struggles to convince her son to use the system to his own advantage. Soon enough, everything Sherri has built, from her job to her son's education, threatens to come crashing down.
Harmon makes the deliberate choice not to bring actors of color into the mix, saying in a SpeakEasy program interview, "that's just not my story to tell." We hear about Perry and his biracial father through Perry's mother Ginnie (Marianna Bassham), who is white and who frequently drops in at the Mason house with baked goods to vent over chardonnay. Like the others, she has her own specific assumptions and biases, but they have been sharpened by raising a biracial son whose achievements are questioned on a daily basis.
If all this seems too heavy, rest assured: Admissions doesn't pretend to tell us how to feel about affirmative action, instead focusing on our inherent shortcomings in defending our own deep-seated beliefs. As Sherri is told, "Must be nice, to be so sure you're right, all the time." When Charlie's deferral leads him to make an unexpected decision, we see how Sherri's certainty in the system is tested, and the lengths to which she'll go to protect her child above all else.
Not every confrontation carries the same weight. In a series of scenes framing the play, Sherri meets with her older coworker Roberta (Cheryl McMahon) to decide how many students of color to include in the upcoming admissions catalogue. Roberta, who professes that she doesn't see color, is more one-note than the other characters, and her interactions with Sherri offer easy, ageist zings instead of something more challenging.
At its best, Admissions' critique aims at an audience that mostly resembles the people we're seeing on stage. How is any of it fair, Charlie asks his mom, and she responds, "You don't have to understand why." It's to director Paul Daigneault's credit that, while SpeakEasy's high-spirited production stays away from preaching at us, we're never completely let off the hook.
SpeakEasy Stage Company's Admissions runs through November 30, 2019, at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston MA. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased at speakeasystage.com, by phone at 617-933-8600, or in person at the Boston Center for the Arts box office.