ADMISSIONS, AT THE CAMBRIDGE ARTS THEATRE
If you are white, liberal and middle class, ‘Admissions’ as a title could not be more appropriate. Joshua Hermon’s (‘Bad Jews’) new play will put you in the interrogator’s chair and beat the *** out of any left-of-centre pretensions. Laugh out loud moments (and there are plenty) were juxtaposed with horribly uncomfortable truths faced by the audience. When it comes to our kids’ futures, how far will our liberal values go in a world of privilege and private education? It is SO Cambridge!
Hermon’s objective was to write about race and class, about what it means to be white in a liberal bubble; he forensically examines whiteness without resorting to what he sees as the usual stereotypes – either the racist baddie or saintly pale-skinned saviour. His characters are brittle, flawed, hypocritical, caring and self-serving at the same time – in others words – real.
The setting is 2016 (we are still in a pre-Trump world) in the smart kitchen – gleaming with polished whiteness - of Sherri Rosen Mason (Alex Kingston). She is Admissions Tutor for a classy New England college with high fees and higher aspirations to increase the diversity of its annual intake which is currently very poor. How to increase the number of students of colour? And – who is a person of colour? Harmon’s characters agonise on the realities of positive discrimination and the attendant thorny issues of white displacement.
Charlie, her seventeen year-old son, has failed to get into Yale, though his best friend, a person of colour, has succeeded. Charlie (Ben Edelman) launches into a hugely long soliloquy/furious rant following this huge personal disaster. Sherri and her husband Bill are similarly unhappy with the world. Wither the family’s oh so liberal views about diversity now? Charlie’s mum and dad had ticked all the right right-on boxes in life (including giving the lad a middle name of ‘Luther’). But the one box they couldn’t tick was the ethnicity question on the Yale application form. It is all very funny and yet at the same time, not at all something to laugh about. Harmon’s clever script manages somehow to balance two opposite poles.
The direction by Daniel Aukin was pacey and unfussy. Kingston was outstanding as the admissions tutor who has to admit to some unpleasant truths about herself. Edelman was painfully spot on as teenage Charlie’s petulant child/emerging man. Terrific support was also given by Margot Leicester as the college’s ageing marketing officer who just can’t seem to get the right ethnic balance into the school prospectus (how many non-white faces should there be?). Andrew Woodall was also brilliant at capturing the prejudices lying just below the surface of Bill’s exterior liberality.
The uncomfortable truths presented in ‘Admissions’ may not be to everyone’s taste and the rapid automatic weapon of words firing in all directions may tire some (there is no interval). But Hermon’s words have the power to wound. The play successfully exposes a world of white liberal contradictions but in a way that never ceases to be compassionate, nor is there any sense of smug superiority. It is a turbo-charged harangue but I loved every minute.