The simple act of describing Admissions could make it seem tougher to watch than it is.
A domestic dramadey about a well-meaning white family whose privilege runs head-first into the college application gauntlet, Studio Theatre’s first play of 2019 is way funnier and less sententious than one might expect. Yes, it does lecture. Yes, it does cajole. But, as directed by Mike Donahue and written by Joshua Harmon, the playwright behind Bad Jews, Admissions, which runs until Feb. 17, is more interested in exploring and discussing, like a good student.
17-year-old Charlie Mason (Ephraim Birney) seems to have his cards all lined up. He’s at the head of his class at Hillcrest (get it? the view from the top?), an elite New England private school — where, not coincidentally, his father (Kevin Kilner) is the president and his mother (Meg Gibson) is in charge of admission — Charlie plays two different sports, he volunteers, and he’s an editor at the school paper. But he’s also Caucasian. And that’s what he (and his parents) blame when he fails to get accepted into his dream college.
Like any loving parents, they pull strings to try to give their child a leg-up. But these aren’t just any loving parents: They’re education professionals dedicated to increasing diversity access. At one point, they literally toast their success when Hillcrest’s minority representation rate hits a modest 20 percent. Unsurprisingly, they’re willing to see their son for more than his race. It doesn’t take long before public and private goals come into conflict, with lengthy debate given to issues of representation, reverse-discrimination, and whether white Americans can ever fully be the change they wish to see in the world.
It isn’t thrilling, but it is useful, healthy, and thought-provoking.
We open on Caite Hevner’s slate-and-eggshell kitchen set, which was meticulously thought-out; there’s childhood art on the wall, but not a lot — it’s a single-child household, only three stools are needed at the island. Everything from the extra-kosher salt to the baker’s rack of decorative plates looks so real you half-expect an audience member to step up on stage and start chopping onions. The first thing we hear in Roc Lee’s sound design, however, is a school bell. Class is in session.
The lessons are good, though, ironically, I wouldn’t object to more diversity among the teachers. This is a story about white guilt and white privilege, but a black actor or two on stage could have improved the perspective. One of the messages of diversity is white voices can’t really give the full picture — even/especially when that picture is itself about representation.
But the dialogue is sharp and talks down to no one, the performances (particularly Gibson) are cracking, and the story feels refreshingly real, particularly to anyone who’s ever put their hopes and dreams into an Ivy League application.
I’m not offering Admissions any scholarships, but it definitely makes the cut.