“Admissions”: A Provocative Gem @ Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage

November 22, 2019

l.-r., Michael Kaye, Maureen Keiller, Nathan Malin.     l.-r., Michael Kaye, Maureen Keiller, Nathan Malin.         Photo: Maggie Hall

 

The SpeakEasy Stage Company production of Admissions is first-class all the way. I was accompanied by a highly theatre-wise friend on her first visit to Boston, one who has witnessed work at prestigious intimate companies all over the world. If that weren’t a high enough bar, she came in distinctly underimpressed by author Joshua Harmon’s previous efforts Bad Jews and Skintight. I’m delighted to report both play and production quickly won her over. And why not? Its ripped-from-the headlines topicality—dealing as it does with the struggle of schools to increase diversity, and the struggle of parents to get their kid in, diversity be damned—is less significant than its intelligence and theatricality, qualities that are to be cherished even when a play’s topic isn’t part of the public conversation.

One distinctive feature of Harmon’s canny architecture is that the aforementioned strugglers are, here, one and the same. The Masons, Bill (Michael Kaye) and Sherri (Maureen Keiller), are like any other parents in wanting the very best for their high school senior son Charlie (Nathan Malin). He wants Yale; he has the grades and activities and recommendations to get in, and best buddy Perry has applied too. So mom and dad are pulling for him almost as much as he is. Going on off to the side is their own admissions process at Hillcrest, a not-quite-first-tier prep school in New Hampshire of which Sherri is admissions dean and Bill headmaster. Both are committed absolutely to reducing the student body’s lily-white composition.

Which has nothing to do with Charlie. Until it does.

The play’s inciting event couldn’t be more embarrassing for the poor kid. In front of their entire basketball team, Perry learns he’s been accepted and Charlie deferred. It’s not a surprising outcome; more than 50% of Yale applicants are similarly put on the wait list. But it’s one that’s fraught with personal and professional significance, because not only does Perry have weaker credentials, he is mixed-race, the son of Sherri’s best friend Ginnie (an excellent, slow-burning Marianna Bassham) and an African-American member of the prep school’s faculty. The characters think about, and then openly question, the reasons for the differing outcomes. And the ensuing bombshells don’t just threaten the decades-long relationships between friends, and within the Mason family itself. They decimate them.

The emotionality that resonates under such life-affecting issues as college acceptance and racial sensitivity comes out in a myriad of ways. Charlie—in a blistering 15-minute monologue superbly rendered by Malin—lets loose all of his frustrations at once, lashing out at the perceived hypocrisies of racial definition, and the PC discussion requirements in classrooms. (Charlie was passed over as editor of the school paper in favor of a woman; now he sardonically wonders why the paper’s (male) advisor, if he’s so determined to diversify, doesn’t give up his own post.) Bill (a sturdy, principled Kaye) gives a stinging rebuke to the diatribe, but he and his wife are truly up against it. They celebrate every percentage point of increase in Hillcrest students of color, just as Yale is likely doing right now: “Hurray, we’ve got Perry!” But the hurt feelings, and the careless words used to express them, are very different when it’s one’s own ox that’s being gored. One glancing comment by Sherri is enough to prove to Ginnie’s satisfaction what her so-called friend truly thinks of her. It’s one of many shattering moments all over the place, staged for strict verisimilitude, no melodrama, by director Paul Daigneault.

In the meanwhile, Sherri is wrestling with the almost totally white suite of photos in next year’s catalogue. “So you want more darker faces,” her assistant Roberta concludes (Cheryl McMahon is touchingly dithering throughout). Well, of course that’s exactly what Sherri wants, but she can’t bring herself to say so. The action keeps returning to Sherri’s office for more and more exasperated negotiations between two women with best intentions, one of whom can’t figure out what her boss wants of her, the other unable to vcrbalize it without stepping on a land mine. Keiller is terrific throughout, but never more so than in duelling with McMahon—duels that people of all races and colors will recognize as painfully true.

It’s worth noting that neither Perry nor his dad nor anyone else of color steps into the play. This is both strategic and canny on Harmon’s part. He’s said he felt uncomfortable putting words in the mouths of Black people, which makes sense. But it’s also wise, because his topic isn’t really America’s racial divide, but rather the state of white liberalism in America. In particular, Harmon is targeting the frequent disjunction between the egalitarian values the majority culture espouses, and the circle-the-wagons mentality to which it defaults when its own privilege is at stake. To tell that story, an all-Caucasian cast of characters wrestling with their conflicts seems distinctly appropriate. Harmon offers no easy answers, but he can’t make us stop thinking about the questions.

Admissions, a production of SpeakEasy Stage Company, plays through Nov. 30, 2019 at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St. in the South End. Tickets may be purchased at https://www.bostontheatrescene.com/season/admissions/

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