Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Oedipus and Jocasta were perfectly happy before the plague came along, and he went out to find who killed old King Laius. Likewise, two thousand years later, Auntie Mame lived to regret having bought Patrick Dennis those damned long pants.
But if the bubble never bursts, the play can't be born.
In Admissions, everyone starts out inside the bubble of academia, and pretty much stays there. It's like Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf with a lot less liquor, and a lot less self-recognition. And the son is anything but imaginary. Celebrated former Artistic Director Steven Woolf stages this new comedy, but the tone is unexpectedly shrill. The people on stage are the embodiment of white privilege, and endlessly accuse one another of it, which ought to be funny. But playwright Joshua Harmon (who also wrote the incendiary Bad Jews) has an uneven way with humor, or perhaps an even greater love of demonizing people, and turning them viciously against one another. On top of all that, hidebound by academia, most of his characters in Admissions can't escape an even bigger bubble: the bitter zeitgeist of America in 2015-16. And so a smell of rot overtakes the play.
At a privileged private academy in New Hampshire, Sherri Rosen-Mason is the guidance counselor and diversity person. Professionally played by Henny Russell, she's a little desperate to get a few more minority students' photos in the school's brochure. This provides genuinely funny scenes with supporting actress Barbara Kingsley, who's delightful as her elderly assistant. But soon, the playwright stirs the culture wars into an angry hornet's nest, and tosses it into our laps, when Sherri's son is turned away from Yale because he himself is not diverse enough.
It's as if someone tried to turn that old Jesse Helms Senate campaign commercial into a comedy: the political TV spot where a white man's hands tear up a rejection letter, while a solemn, sympathetic narrator tells us, "you needed that job, but they had to give it to a minority, because of a racial quota!"
Admissions produces the same wrenching sensation, of social justice balanced against self-preservation. And after Charlie, the 17-year-old son, emits (what I count as) a five-page teenage screed of frustration over his own experience of reverse-racism, the laughter in the audience dwindles substantially. For better or worse, we are suddenly out of the realm of light comedy, and right there inside the cage with a monster, which is probably the nicest thing I can say about playwright Harmon. Thom Niemann is fine as the white American teenager, but the character is so privileged and self-pitying, I kept expecting him to start singing the Hitler Youth anthem, "Tomorrow Belongs To Me." In fact, it'd be a much more interesting play if he did, because then the bubble would have to burst. Instead, the son designs a politically correct kind of revenge on his parents that could only be concocted within the bubble of theater.
There are long arguments that tell us that our lives are wasted if we don't get into an Ivy League college (playwright Harmon is a big proponent of making us feel awful). But who knows? Maybe if these actors had funny sweaters and funny hair, like Ms. Kingsley, we'd laugh. Instead, the arms of the rest of the highly trained performers on stage are slashed at each other again and again like dueling swords, in an atmosphere of maddened combativeness.
Fortunately, Kate Udall, nicely steeped in modern drama as Sherri's friend, roots out the play's only "out-of-the-bubble" moment, when she suggests that (despite the fact that her own, 25% black son did get into Yale) her mixed-race husband didn't get the same job as Sherri's Caucasian spouse, because of white privilege, in some other place and time, beyond this Brady Bunch inspired living room/kitchen set, designed by Bill Clarke. But since neither of these mixed-race characters ever appears on the stage, we must regard her entire family as a plot device, in a play that's merely a taunting conundrum.
Also in this house of whiteness, R. Ward Duffy is great as the dad. But, almost in the manner of a horror movie, he doesn't attempt an exorcism in his own home until it's just too late.
Admissions, through November 11, 2018, in the Studio Theatre of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, 110 Edgar Rd., on the campus of Webster University, St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.repstl.org
The Players (in speaking order):