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By Joshua Harmon
Trafalgar Studios, Whitehall, London SW1
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
In the week that Felicity Huffman and others were prosecuted for fraud over an insane college admission scandal, the arrival of Joshua Harmon's new play Admissions couldn't be timelier. Harmon's first hit, Bad Jews, was a well-deserved smash here a few years ago and his regular collaborator Daniel Aukin returns to direct this one, which won the Drama Desk award in New York.
We follow the journey of Sherri (Alex Kingston), Head of Admissions at an elite prep school in New England as she goes from absolute certainty to total uncertainty about her place in the world. Her life revolves around trying to slowly drag the college's ethnic minority numbers up from the floor to the dizzying heights of 20% and being, as her husband (the Head of the College) quips "an award winning rejecter of white boys".
Harman deliciously scalpels all the inherent contradictions in this for a liberal middle class (in the English sense) woman. Her first barrier is elderly colleague Roberta (Margot Leicester) who struggles with her demands that the photos for the college brochures must have more people of color in them. She can't understand this obsession with skin color over everything else and her attempts at securing the right shot are ruined because "the (few) black kids sit together" at lunch.
Problems start when Sherri's bright 17 year old son Charlie (Ben Edelman) fails to get into Yale, (the Holy of Holies) while his academically poorer but mixed race best friend Perry does. This fractures her relationship with Perry's extremely politically correct mother Ginnie (Sarah Hadland), an old friend.
Who defines color and who gets to decide who is oppressed, asks Charlie in a hilarious and prolonged diatribe when he can't contain his anger any more. It even takes a witty poke at Penelope Cruz being defined as a ‘person of color'. Sherri is devastated as the political has just become personal for her in a biggest way possible. But Charlie takes things further by proposing a radical course of action which immediately puts his parents' values to the test. The father, Bill (Andrew Woodall), rather unconvincingly dismisses Charlie as "a racist spoiled little sh*t" but Charlie, by going public with his plan in a letter to the student magazine, exposes the hypocrisy at the center of his parents' world. It's a great dramatic twist and ensures the audience has to grapple with this intractable question.
Ben Edelman, the sole transfer from the New York cast, deservedly won an Obie for his performance and he's one to watch. He fleshes out a convincing teen when the character could have merely been a cipher. Alex Kingston, too, perfectly calibrates Sherri's journey from cold ideologue to fiery mother lioness pleading by the end that "our brightest kids should not take themselves out of the running". Leicester's deft portrayal also neatly sums up her generation's befuddlement. "Tell me exactly what you want" she demands of Sherri when the latter wriggles on her fence of complacency.
Daniel Aukin's direction keeps the pitch fevered but not boiling over and Paul Wills' grand set is like every fantasy kitchen you've ever seen in those glossy supplements to your Sunday newspaper.
With Admissions, Harmon bravely dives head first into the mire of current US culture wars and it is testament to his skill as a dramatist that he has fashioned a compelling well plotted family drama out of it. At its heart it's a story of families, ridiculous exam pressures and getting into the right schools, and what could be more universal than that?