Off-Broadway Review: “Admissions”

David Roberts

  • Chief New York Theatre Critic
  • Outer Critics Circle

When a speaker raises alternate views of a significant problem and seems at one point to take “one side” and then “the other side,” and then advocates for the purity of moral ambiguity – presenting profound rhetorical arguments for each of those points of view – the audience is left bombarded by what seemslike conflicting ethos, pathos, and logos and also is left with their heads spinning, alternately laughing and then feeling guilty for laughing and not laughing and puzzled why they didn’t laugh. And in the end, confused about what kind of catharsis has just released their repressed emotions unawares.

The “speaker” here is the cumulative voice of Joshua Harmon’s deeply evocative “Admissions” currently running at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater through Sunday May 6. The assumed topic isthe percentage of students of color at Hillcrest the “second tier, on-the-cusp-of-being-a-first-tier prep/boarding school in rural New Hampshire” and the goal of the Admissions Director Sherri Rosen-Mason (the captivating Jessica Hecht) to raise that percentage to twenty percent. The underestimated topic is far less admirable than inclusiveness and “shakes the windows and rattles the walls” (Bob Dylan) of not only the hallowed halls of Hillcrest but the foundation of the Hecht household.

“Admissions” is a convincing and cogent exposé of white privilege and entitlement generated by members of the white community itself. It is a gripping new play that challenges the beliefs and actions of the “very liberal” Head of Admissions” and her equally “very liberal” Head of the School husband Bill Mason (the solidly grounded Andrew Garman) and brings their son Charlie Luther Mason (Ben Edelman) to a late adolescent crisis of identity and belief. When Charlie is not accepted into Yale his first-choice college and Perry his “less qualified”friend of color is granted acceptance, the issue of “quotas” at Hillcrest and at American institutions of higher learning moves front and center as does thecorrelative issue of “preferential treatment” afforded other minorities.

Ben Edelman’s(Charlie) tour-de-force performance, sparked byunexamined privilege, erupts from a place of intense teenage angst. And although it might seem his outbursts are mere reflections of a shaky Make America Great Agenda, his immature weltanschauung is consistent with what he has heard and seen in his own home and in his own environment. It makes no sense for his father Bill to berate him (to the point of accusable verbal abuse) because Bill is the source, the epicenter of white privilege waiting to be unpacked.Mr. Edelman’s believable and authentic performance moves his character Charlie to make decisions – after extensive self-examination and episodes of public confession – that bring his parents to levels of disbelief and pushback that disclose deep pockets of hypocrisy and dishonesty in the liberal matrix of their value system.

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Under Daniel Aukin’scaptivating direction, the engaging cast reveals the depth of meaning and the layers of rhetorical argument in Joshua Harmon’s explosively honest and intriguing script. ‘Admissions’ ricochet rapidly across the expanse of the Mitzi Newhouse Theater. Admissions to colleges accepted, rejected, and withdrawn. Admissions of guilt. Admissions of racism. Admissions of duplicity. Admissions of disappointment and misunderstanding. Admissions of vulnerability and fallibility. It is impossible to leave a performance of “Admissions” without being deeply moved and deeply unsettled.

Credit is due Ann McDonough whose “Roberta” brilliantly encapsulates the difficulties of marketing Sherri’s vision and credit is due Sally Murphy whose “Ginnie Peters” (Perry’s mother) confronts her friend Sherrie’s underbelly of racism and pseudo-liberalism. Riccardo Hernandez’s detailed set allows the audience the space it needs to imagine what happens whenCharlie bounds up the stairs and to calculate the mood of those entering the playing space before being seen. Toni-Leslie James’ costumes and Mark Barton’s lighting further rivet the action to expansive levels of reality.

Wear your values and firmly-held beliefs loosely around your core when you see “Admissions” and expect to have both challenged and revealed in redemptive ways.

 

ADMISSIONS

The cast of “Admissions” features Ben Edelman, Andrew Garman, Jessica Hecht, Ann McDonough, and Sally Murphy.

“Admissions” has sets by Riccardo Hernandez, costumes by Toni-Leslie James, lighting by Mark Barton, and sound by Ryan Rumery. Production photos by Jeremy Daniel.

“Admissions” runs at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre (150 West 65th Street)through Sunday May 6, 2018.on the following schedule: Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m.; Wednesday at 2:00 p.m.; Saturday at 2:00 p.m.; and Sunday at 3:00 p.m. For further information, including to purchase tickets at $90.00, please visit http://www.lct.org/shows/admissions/. Running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.

Photo: Jessica Hecht, Andrew Garman, and Ben Edelman in “Admissions.” Credit: Jeremy Daniel.