Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's review of An Ideal Husband
And thus opens Admissions, Joshua Harmon's hard-hitting, paradoxical look at admission processes at both upper-crust private secondary schools and the most sought after private universities. In a riveting, superbly acted and directed production at Los Altos Stage Company, Admissions lays bare for all to examine the true values of two white parentsSherri in Admissions and her husband Bill, the headmasterboth who pride themselves in clearing the path for minority and female students to enter and excel at Hillcrest, an expensive private high school. But when their own son Charlie, who has been able to attend the highly exclusive school free of tuition and has in fact truly achieved much in his four years, finds out he only has a "defer" in his application to Yale, what these same two parents are willing to do to so their white, privileged son can enter the next level of elite education immediately calls to mind the recent admissions/testing scandals affecting parents from Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and beyond.
Kristen Walter is almost frightening as the constantly intense, highly driven-to-success Sherri, whose temper can rise in meteoric proportions when she is not getting her wayeither in the number of pictures of people of color in the school's catalogue or in her son's choice of school, which does not match her plan for him. Sherri has no problem interrupting, yelling, and generally talking down as if she were a teen to the older staff member Roberta, whom Sherri sees as not delivering what she demanded in terms of the pictures. It is the same way she reacts when her son announces to her (after publishing his intent in a school paper editorial) what he plans to do, having not gotten into Yale. He has created a path for himself far from what his parents have dreamed for him, one that enables him to give up his "white seat at the table" at one of the elite universities so that someone who has not had all the privileges he has had can sit there.
But how Sherri reacts to that news is a tiny fraction of the explosive reaction of husband and dad Bill when he hears of their Charlie's intent. Michael Champlin's Bill turns beet red, and one can be almost sure there is steam coming from his scarlet ears to match his now even-redder hair and beard. As he shouts expletive-enhanced threats, he and Sherri are already planning whom they can call among their admissions and dean network to overturn what they see as their son's intention on ruining his life.
But Charlie has not come to his decision easily or immediately. After all, he received the news of his Yale deferment in a text in front of all his basketball team mates at practiceat the same moment his best friend Perry found out he got in. That Perry is from mixed-race parents and thus qualifies as "black" on admissionseven though he is also the one that "does not read black" for the admissions cataloguesends Charlie into an absolute tirade in front of his shocked parents about how unfair it is to be a high-achieving white boy.
At a young age, Quincy Shaindlin gives a near performance of a lifetime as his Charlie holds court in the family kitchen in what must be a nearly ten-minute tirade of frustration. Point-by-point, he ticks off how he has lost out to what he assesses as lesser-qualified fellow students for positions and honors he should have received, leading up to Perry's getting into Yale with grades, SAT scores, number of AP courses, and extracurricular activities all less than his own. Like his father's reaction later, Charlie's hue becomes so brightly red one wonders if blood veins are about to burst as he screams near tears, "I am one of the fucking people working really hard to earn a seat at the table"; but in his mind, the seats keep going to others less deserving, except for their color of skin.
Watching Charlie of course is difficult because one can both feel his disappointment while at the same time cringe at his logic and his "white-persecution" argument. Even as we cannot help but be in awe of Quincy Shaindlin's performance, we cannot help but shun Charlie's line of thinking. But as the play progresses and Charlie both reflects and learns from his emotion-driven outburst, what is even more difficult to watch is the reaction of his liberal parents when he decides, "If there are going to be more seats at the table, someone has to drop out to make more room." How they each respond and their decisions for subsequent actions is at the heart of the playwright's pointed script that raises questions about just how deep our liberal ways of thinking and acting go when it comes to our own families and our own self-images. A startling, showstopping moment occurs when tall Charlie stands nose-to-nose with his bursting-with-anger dad and screams, "You're not a hero; look in the mirror; you're a hypocrite."
With that line alone, Joshua Harmon demands each of us look at ourselves in the mirrorsespecially all of us sitting in the Los Altos theatre who are Bay Area Californians and most admittedly liberal and overall privileged (compared to most of the world) as we can beand ask ourselves, "How deep do my liberal values really go when it comes to what I want for me and my family?"
As powerful as that moment and those preceding it are, where the playwright takes the play and its outcomes leave little to be answered about what we should learn in the end. The subsequent scenes and the final outcome are startling in how much they are leave the status quo of the privileged, majority world much as it is already; and while that is perhaps the message (nothing really changes), that a vision of what could change is not provided by this script is somewhat disappointing.
Even so, Gary Landis deserves long and loud applause for his direction of this fast-moving, one hour, forty-five minute play with no intermission. There is a palpable level of tension maintained without exhausting the audience along with outbursts and confrontations that real enough to send chills down one's spine.
The cast to a person perform difficult roles with precision of presence, reactions electric and believable (if not always desirable), and emotions raw and visceral. Besides the three outstanding actors already mentioned, Judith Miller plays the somewhat eccentric development staff member in charge of photos, Roberta, with an air of her own New England whiteness peeping past her Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer sweater, but also with a clear desire to do in the end what is both right and desired by her irate colleague Sherri. Marjorie Hazeltine is Perry's Caucasian mother Ginnie, best friend of Sherri whose friendship becomes severely tested after Perry gets into Yale and Quincy does not. Marjorie Hazeltine's Ginny, too, has her moments of emotional breakdowns and blow-ups that are both astounding and difficult to witness.
The performances are enhanced by a beautifully attired and designed split stage of a fully equipped, modern kitchen on one side and a richly paneled admissions office on the other (kudos to Seafus Smith for scenic and Phyllis E. Garland for properties designs). Lisa Claybaugh's costumes, Justin Buchs' lighting, and Ken Kilen's sound complete a creative team's top-notch collection of effective efforts to give the production first-class appeal all the way.
Admissions is not a fun, relaxing evening at the theatre. It is thought provoking, disturbing, and not altogether satisfyingespecially its conclusion. But perhaps that is exactly how Joshua Harmon wants us to leave the theatre, not happy with how it all ends and how white privilege once again triumphs, even among those most loudly decrying it. Los Altos Stage Company challenges us to rethink how we live our own liberal stances and to take a few minutes to look ourselves in that telling mirror. How would our script of Admissions have ended if Quincy were our son?
Admissions runs through September 29, 2019, at Los Altos Stage Company, 97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos CA. Tickets and information are available online at http://losaltosstage.org, Monday-Friday, 3-6 p.m. at the box office, or by calling 650-941-0551.