SpeakEasy's 'Admissions': Fine Production, Flawed Play

by James Wilkinson

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday October 30, 2019

Maureen Keiller in "Admissions"
Maureen Keiller in "Admissions"  (Source:Maggie Hall Photography)

I've been struggling to nail down exactly how to jump into this and I guess it's best to just lay it out as simply as possible: I am suspicious of SpeakEasy's production of "Admissions" (and not in a good way). Suspicious of its intentions and more importantly, of its effects. It's an insidious suspicion that takes root during the play's opening scene, only growing stronger as the production went on. Perhaps it can be chalked up to my naturally suspicious mindset, (which seems to flare up with more and more regularity these days), but I think there's something more going on here that's worth investigating.

The play by Joshua Harmon purports to be an examination of a certain kind of well-intentioned but meaningless white liberal attitude toward race. I'm not going to argue that it's a topic we shouldn't be discussing. The country has been going through much-needed reckoning in the last few years on race and I'm certainly in favor of anything that helps spark the conversations that'll push us in the right direction. But is that really what "Admissions" does? Having sat through the play and listened to how the audience reacted to the piece, I'm not so sure. SpeakEasy gives the play a fine-looking production (they always do. It's pretty rare that I walk away from a SpeakEasy show with complaints about the design), but I don't believe it has the nutritional value that it claims to. Its methods don't support its aims. For a play to spark the conversations it wants to, we should leave with our minds spinning about the possibilities and implications of everything we've seen. Here, the more you think about what you've seen, the more it crumbles away and you're left feeling hollow.

Our protagonist, Sherri (Maureen Keiller) is an admissions officer at an elite New England prep school where her husband Bill (Michael Kaye) is the headmaster and her son Charlie (Nathan Malin) attends. She prides herself on being the person leading the charge to try and bring greater diversity to the extremely white student body. Under her guidance, the student body has gone from six percent people of color to eighteen percent (still not great, she admits, but three hundred percent better than it was). In the midst of this crusade (and some amusing battles over the admissions catalog), her son is applying to colleges and is dead set on attending Yale. When he doesn't get in but his best friend Perry (who's half-African American) does, the disappointment initially sparks an epic tirade about all of the ways that he, as a straight white cisgender male, is getting passed over in the name of diversity. His parents are horrified at this outburst (at least his father, Bill [Michael Kaye] is), and call him out on his brattish behavior. They apparently do such a good job at calling him out that it inspires him to make a gesture (which I'll try not to spoil here). One equally horrifying to his parents that swings pretty far in the other direction all in the name of trying to make space for people of color in the world.

Nathan Malin, Michael Kaye and Maureen Keiller in "Admissions," at the Roberts Studio Theatre through November 30
Nathan Malin, Michael Kaye and Maureen Keiller in "Admissions," at the Roberts Studio Theatre through November 30  (Source: Maggie Hall Photography)

I'm sad to say that I missed Speakeasy's two previous productions of Harmon's previous plays, "Bad Jews" and "Significant Other." I managed to pick up a copy of "Bad Jews" about a year ago and was amazed at just how acidic Harmon was willing to let his characters get. The play felt like it was written in fire and just reading it was thrilling. Except for Charlie's fifteen-minute screed against political correctness (and hats off to actor Nathan Malin, who manages to sell the hell out of it), I don't think that the dialogue in "Admissions" is nearly as interesting. I'll happily cop to letting out a few chuckles through the evening, but on a line by line basis, everything around that monologue just feels flat. Does everything need to be in the same constant state of excitement? Of course not, but there's a great collection of actors on stage and it made me wish that the scenes gave them more to do. Playing the scenes as written only highlights where I think Harmon starts to get his wires crossed.

The play's opening scene has Sherri calling a school administrator, Roberta (Cheryl McMahon) into her office. In Sherri's mind, the admissions catalog isn't up to snuff. All those glossy pages of student photographs and there are barely any people of color featured. How is Sherri supposed to bring diversity to the school if potential applicants of color don't see people like them in the school catalog? It's an amusing bit that quickly establishes the type of liberal flag-waving that Sherri engages in. Keiller and McMahon play it well. But it's also extremely one-sided. If the purpose of the play is to get us to examine our own white would-be weakness, then shouldn't we be made to identify with Sherri? The way the scene is written and played she's practically the villain. The humor of the scene coming from Sherri's holier-than-thou tone and Roberta's increasing desperation to appease her. Even when Roberta blurts out that old defense that she "doesn't see race," she still feels like the victim in the scene. One that's being held hostage by a crazy social justice warrior who doesn't want pizza to be served in the cafeteria for the ethnocentric agenda it promotes.

The result of all of this is that in the second half of the play when Sherri is shown unwilling to give up the privileges she enjoys as a well-to-do white woman, the finger of shame stays pointed on her and never turns back toward the audience. Instead, we're given the opportunity to say "See! See! I always knew the members of the PC police were full of bullshit." I just don't see how that's helpful. Alright, so she's a hypocrite. But then again, who isn't? Can any of us claim to be leading lives perfectly aligned with our ideals? And even if she is a hypocrite, doesn't she also, you know, have a point about ensuring diverse representation in the catalog? We can have a conversation around her behavior that we find problematic, but why do we have to chuck the baby out with the bathwater?

There's a flawed logic behind the characters that keeps popping up. Late in the play, (post-grand gesture), Nathan Malin does a great job selling the new repentant Charlie, but how the heck does this new side of the character line up with the one who delivered the screed in the first half? If the character is capable of this kind of emotional 180 in the span of a few weeks, then it's no wonder his parents don't trust him to make his own decisions.

As I write this, I can practically hear colleagues and peers arguing that the issues I have with the work are there to spark conversation and that if I'm pointing them out, the play must be doing its job. I'm afraid that I can't buy that argument. Not in this case. The play heaps so much judgment on Sherri for, as her son puts it, not being willing to let her ideals cost her anything. Alright then, so given that he's a white man himself, what does Harmon think about Charlie's decision to give up his opportunities to allow someone else to sit at the table (seeing that I'm a white man myself, I'd love the advice). If Harmon doesn't believe that white men should give up their spot at the table, then why is he taking so much time to make the argument? If Harmon does believe in that philosophy, then it seems worth pointing out that he could have practiced what he preaches and told SpeakEasy to perform a play by a member of an underrepresented group rather than his own.

Again, under Paul Daigneault's direction, SpeakEasy gives the play a fine production. Scenic designer Eric Levenson creates an elegant box for the action to take place in. Lighting designer Karen Perlow uses a light touch but is still able to create a few moments with a nice glow. All of the actors are fantastic. But amidst what's good about the production are those suspicions of mine which makes it hard to recommend the show. You don't want to feel that you're being sold a bill of goods. Here, I fear, we are.

"Admissions" continues through November 30 at the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the SpeakEasy Stage Company website.