Admissions Review: White people’s privilege and ambivalence

In “Admissions,” an aggressively provocative play by Joshua Harmon at Lincoln Center, a white admissions officer (Jessica Hecht), who is committed to increasing diversity at an elite prep school, comes face to face with her hypocrisy when her 17-year-old son Charlie (Ben Edelman) isn’t accepted into Yale, while his black friend and classmate Perry is.
In the playwright’s essay about his play on the Lincoln Center website, Harmon (the playwright of “Bad Jews” and “Significant Other”) says “Admissions” is not really about applying to college – not, in other words, about affirmative action. “At its core, this play is an examination of whiteness: white privilege, white power, white anxiety, white guilt, all of it.” This presumably explains his decision to make all five on-stage characters white; non-white characters, such as Perry, are only mentioned. He wants the play to be about how white people (meaning liberal white people) view race – which can be summed up as: Though they hate to admit this, they’re ambivalent. They theoretically want to see an even playing field, but don’t want to make any personal sacrifices to achieve it. This ambivalence gives the play’s title a double meaning: The events of the play force Charlie’s mother to make admissions about her feelings.
But here is an essential problem with “Admissions,” which is well-acted and well-designed and perhaps well-meaning. As provocative as it is in its characters’ ambivalence, the play is also ambiguous in its provocations.
Initially it seems a straight-on satire, making fun of the contradictions and absurdities of privileged white people’s righteous battles against white privilege, as embodied by Sherri Rosen-Mason (Hecht). The very first scene presents a condescending Sherri over-patiently explaining to older staff member Dorothy (Ann McDonough) that there are not enough photographs of people of color in the admissions catalogue for the school. In a later scene, Dorothy returns with a redone catalogue, and now Sherri complains there aren’t enough white people.
“All that comes out of your mouth is diversity, diversity, diversity,” Dorothy complains. ”It’s exhausting….Until the day I die I won’t forget the faculty meeting where you railed against the ethno-centric meal plan. Kids like pizza. Period. They don’t care what continent it comes from…”
The satirical tone is complicated by a scene that is an indisputable high point of the production, but contains a confusing mixed message. When Charlie found out that Yale had “deferred” him (not accepted him into early admission), he spent four hours screaming by himself in the wooded area around the New Hampshire prep school. Now he is back home, not any less upset, and starts letting loose at the unfairness of it all to his parents. It’s unfair that Perry got accepted when “…his SAT scores are not better than mine…I actually do like a million more extra-curriculurs…I take three AP’s he only takes 2…” He expands on the unfairness – it’s unfair that a girl was made editor in chief of the school newspaper when he’s the better writer – and expands still further, into truly provocative material, what he sees as the weirdly anti-white attitudes of the teachers and his classmates. For example, a classmate named Joanna said that it was “soul crushing to read so many white books,” citing Willa Cather who, as Charlie points out, “is not only a woman but was also like, basically a lesbian..I was like, first of all, we barely ever read books by white people anymore, thanks to my parents actually, but also, YOU’RE WHITE JOANNA. So what are you talking about? Do you hate yourself…I don’t have white pride, but I don’t hate myself…” He expands even further: What is white? “…if Penelope Cruz is a person of color then I think we should discuss why Sophia Loren and Marion Cotillard are not.” And he asks, by implication, can’t white people be oppressed?
It is funny and pointed and alarming and delivered with great gusto, a virtual aria that gets applause from the audience. But is the playwright endorsing everything Charlie says?
Harmon has other characters condemn Charlie. Charlie’s father Bill Mason (Andrew Garman), the headmaster of the prep school, calls Charlie a “spoiled little over-privileged brat” and afterwards complains privately to Sherri: “It looks like we successfully raised a Republican.” Then, in a later scene, Ginnie (Sally Murphy) – Perry’s white mother (his father is black) – confronts Sherri over her and Charlie’s assumption that Perry got into Yale because he’s black. “The next time your family’s sitting around wondering why a black kid got something a white kid didn’t, maybe you could help me figure out this: Why does my husband have the same credentials as yours, and mine teaches English, and yours is Head of a School?”
Yet, these alternative viewpoints are expressed with so much less investment of energy and time – they command so much less attention – that one could be forgiven for feeling the playwright has added them for cover… to give only the appearance of balance.
Then, later in the play, Charlie completely reverses himself — “I was like a crazy person that night” – and decides to take an action on behalf of people of color. I suppose it would be a spoiler to spell out exactly what it is, but it’s an act of self-sacrifice that is so unlikely, given what we know about the character and his family and everything he’s said previously, that it feels imposed by the playwright. Is he trying to say more than to point out (once again) that Charlie’s parents are hypocrites?
For all the cleverness of its writing, and the sophistication of Daniel Aukin’s direction, “Admissions” adds up to a stacked deck. As a result, the play is, “at its core,” superficial – superficial about liberal attitudes towards race, superficial even about the admissions process; there is no sense that any research went into understanding the actual interplay of factors that go into creating a student body. Set in 2015-2016, “Admissions” attempts to avoid the current racially charged landscape, but we’re seeing it now, and so in its narrow targeting,  “Admissions” also winds up being superficial about “whiteness…all of it.”

Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater
Written by Joshua Harmon; Directed by Daniel Aukin
Cast Ben Edelman, Andrew Garman, Jessica Hecht, Ann McDonough and Sally Murphy

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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