By Lynn Venhaus
“Admissions” doesn’t just confront the elephant in the room, it awakens a stampede.
With brilliant scorched-earth dialogue and willingness to bluntly address uncomfortable truths and contradictions among liberal white Americans, playwright Josh Harmon has opened a space for polite society to reflect on today’s standards and practices.
For the past several years, we’ve started conversations on racial matters. And this play takes one aspect, and all five characters speak their minds in a refreshingly candid way.
So, what am I tiptoeing around? “Admissions” examines whiteness: privilege, power, anxiety, guilt and anger.
Before any fellow Caucasians groan like it’s a bitter pill to swallow, I can assure you the good-sport audiences have taken it in stride and laughed heartily at the frank talk and yes, the hypocrisy, recognizing the things we don’t say, or dare say in whispers, and how we knee-jerk react.
Because of the play’s framework, we’re allowed to feel everyone’s indignation and hear their point of view.
Sherri, as the head of admissions at a tony prep boarding school in New Hampshire, has increased diversity from 6 to 18 percent, an achievement worthy of a celebration by her equally progressive husband. But when her only son, a good student-athlete named Charlie Luther Mason, is denied admittance to Yale while his best friend, a bi-racial student-athlete named Perry, gets in on what they perceive to be “the race checkbox,” well, fireworks ensue.
It’s obvious why this new work, which opened in March at the Lincoln Center, won the Drama Desk and Outer Critics awards for Best Play. Harmon is known for “Bad Jews,” which the New Jewish Theatre produced several years ago.
The Rep’s intimate Studio Theatre has had multiple sold-out performances, for this has struck a nerve, and done so with biting wit and stinging humor.
Steve Woolf’s direction is steam-heat hot. He keeps the pace brisk, and the interaction of the cast is smooth.
The well-prepared cast effortlessly serves and volleys back and forth that it’s like watching a Grand Slam tennis match – the finesse of their delivery is like world-class athletes rising to the occasion.
Henny Russell is rather smug as the high-minded and well-intentioned Sherri Rosen-Mason, who deals with race at work and at home. Her best friend Ginnie Peters (Kate Udall), is married to a bi-racial English professor and is Perry’s mother. Suddenly, fissures erupt in their friendship, and Udall is quick to switch emotions, calling out her friend’s hurtful words.
R. Ward Duffy, appearing in his 10th show at The Rep, and Russell’s real-life husband, is sharp as Bill Mason, who admonishes his son as a spoiled brat and worries about how they got off track and how to work their way back to seeing things clearly.
In a breakthrough role, Thom Niemann triumphs as the privileged young man trying to figure out his place in the world and being “woke” in contemporary America. His agitated, exasperated 17-minute monologue skewering political correctness is one of the year’s best scenes – and got a huge ovation.
In a comical supporting role, Barbara Kingsley is funny as Roberta, a school employee in the development office who is trying to do what Sherri tells her to make their school catalog photos more diverse.
The cast percolates with conviction and relatability.
The office and two-story home scenic design by Bill Clarke is a marvel – one of the largest I’ve seen in that space, and an efficient way to tell this comedy-drama. Lighting designer Nathan W. Scheuer has lit it perfectly while Rusty Wandall’s sound and Lou Bird’s costumes add to the atmosphere.
Even with the best of intentions, we may be part of the problem instead of the solution we think we are striving for, and “Admissions” allows us to see the opportunity to reflect on what’s happening now.
We don’t live in a void. Bold, daring and razor-sharp, “Admissions” helps us see we need to have more conversations, and it’s imperative we keep up the dialogue, at this very divisive time.
“Admissions” played The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ Studio Theatre Oct. 26 – Nov. 11.