Seriocomedy shines light on hypocrisy
The white, upper-middle-class, liberal family in Joshua Harmon’s latest seriocomic play, Admissions, takes a disconcerting, yet very funny spin into hypocrisy as its members argue about how to ease racial inequality without endangering their privileged lives.
The family’s delving into competing truths — and self-serving lies — are spouted with such wit and LOL punch lines that the comedy mostly outweighs the serious portion of the play. It very humorously brings us the sad, all- too-human message that good intentions, when put to the test, are often just words speaking louder than actions.
The spirited, scathing humor of Harmon’s earlier work, Bad Jews, broke attendance records in 2015 at the Studio Theatre, site of the current production. In a similar vein, this new work had the almost completely white, seemingly privileged audience rolling on the floor laughing.
The one-act, 90-minute play revolves around the progressive, good-intentioned, working-toward-racial-diversity Mason family. Wife Sherri is the dean of admissions at Hillcrest, a fairly tony New Hampshire boarding school, while husband Bill is the school’s headmaster, and Charlie, their 18-year-old son, is a student there in his senior year.
Leveling the playing field
Sherri, played with the right amount of vim, vigor and limited benevolence by Meg Gibson, is working hard at bringing the enrollment of racial minorities at the school up to 18 percent. Husband Bill (a convincingly ultra-liberal Kevin Kilner) says “go for it!”
But then their teenage son Charlie applies to Yale, along with his best school buddy, Perry, who happens to be of mixed race. But only one gets in — and it’s not the white kid with the better grades.
When he learns that his application is put on hold, Charlie (Ephraim Birney, who makes the entertainingly most of his mercurial character) takes off with a long screed, which is both painful and funny as it slashes into the politically correct hypocritical “truths” of the world today, as seen by a smart, immature, spoiled young man-kid.
For example, Charlie howls about a fellow student from Chile who insists that their literature class should read more books by writers of color. “Cristobal! You’re white, too!” Charlie screeches. “Your ancestors were the colonizers, not the colonized.”
He throws insults at the girl who got the job over him as editor of the school newspaper, and lets us know that he is the much better writer and more understanding, to boot. Then comes the sarcastic scream: “Of course a woman should run the newspaper — if she is the best candidate!”
After hearing Charlie’s “disgusting” rant, his father returns the tirade with a four-letter insult and angrily brands his son with the worst label: a “conservative.”
But Mama Sherri acts just like most mothers of the left, right or center — everyone should have the same rights, but not at the expense of my son. She asks her husband to make calls to all his Yalie connections, while she tries to unlevel the field again for Charlie’s college acceptance.
Good-bye to Ivy
Then Charlie’s conscience suddenly acts up and he realizes that his earlier eruption was “not me.” What is him, in the next go-round at least, is a fine young man who decides his Ivy League dreams, and a recent financial windfall received by his parents, should be given up in the form of a scholarship for a deserving racial minority student.
Charlie puts this in a guest editorial he writes for the school newspaper. Mama and papa are far from pleased to get the chance to put their professed good intentions into a scholarship for some Black, Hispanic or Asian kid.
To add further injury to his parents’ world, Charlie says he will enroll at an — ugh! — community college, which means to his parents that he would live in a rundown apartment in some semi-slum area as he prepares for the unprivileged life of a community college graduate.
At least nobody mentions that, under such circumstances, he is in danger of learning what life is like for others.
Local acting pro Sarah Marshall is on hand to bring a thoroughly sympathetic puzzlement to her role of Roberta, an old-time school staffer who isn’t quite up to snuff on political correctness.
Roberta doesn’t initially fulfill admissions director Sherri’s orders to get more photos of racial minorities into next year’s school catalogue. “I don’t see race,” Roberta says in all innocent blindness.
Marni Penning plays Sherri’s close girlfriend, Ginnie, who happens to be the white mother of mixed race Perry, the kid who was accepted at Yale. She forcefully propels the play’s tensest scene in a face-off with Sherri, who implies that Perry got into Yale because of the color of his skin.
All the action and angst takes place in the family’s kitchen, amply stacked with designer cookies, carrot cake and bottles of fine wine. Award-winning, veteran director Mike Donahue, who happens to be an alumnus of the Yale School of Drama, prompts the characters to move physically and emotively in a way that even makes the plentiful speechifying dramatically satisfying.
A possibly uncomfortable satire turns out to be entertaining and funny. Put most of the blame on playwright Joshua Harmon for the clever, sharp dialogue that makes the audience laugh all the way to, hopefully, reexamining whether their thoughts and words about fairness, justice and diversity are put into the right actions.
Studio Theatre is located at 1501 14th St. NW, Washington, D.C. The play has been extended through March 3. Performances are Wednesday to Saturday at 8 p.m., with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Tickets are $60 to $90, with a $5 discount for those 62 and older with ID. A limited number of rush tickets are available for $30 one-half hour before the performance. Walk-up only.
Studio has a parking partnership with Washington Plaza Hotel at 10 Thomas Circle NW, three blocks south of Studio. Patrons who park at the hotel’s parking garage can purchase a $13 voucher at the box office. Street parking is extremely limited.
The nearest Metro stops: Red Line, Dupont Circle; Orange/Blue Lines, McPherson Square; and Green/ Yellow Lines, U Street/Cardozo.