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Theater Review: 'Admissions,' Middlebury Acting Company

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Published October 12, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Orlando Grant and Jena Necrason - COURTESY OF PETER LOURIE
  • Courtesy Of Peter Lourie
  • Orlando Grant and Jena Necrason

The phrase "college admissions" has become politically charged. Add "scandal" to an internet search, and scores of stories pop up about celebrities and other wealthy, influential people buying their children slots at selective institutions. And then there's the situation at Harvard University, which is currently facing a lawsuit that alleges the Ivy League school discriminates against Asian Americans. As Anemona Hartocollis put it in a 2019 New York Times article, the American college admissions system is "exploitable, arbitrary, broken."

In Joshua Harmon's 2018 play Admissions, presented this week by Middlebury Acting Company, a family implodes when its high school senior is deferred from Yale University. Directed by Rebecca Strum, the biting satire examines the reality (and perception) of bias, privilege, diversity and discrimination in higher education.

Set at prestigious New Hampshire prep school Hillcrest, the show centers on Sherri Rosen-Mason (Jena Necrason), the school's dean of admissions. Her husband, Bill Mason (played by Necrason's real-life spouse, John Nagle), is the school's headmaster. Their son, Charlie (Orlando Grant), is Yale-bound, but the family's world is shattered when he doesn't get in.

The deferral itself isn't what ultimately stokes Charlie's rage. It's that his best friend, Perry, who is Black, does get in. Charlie concludes that the only difference between them is race, since both are excellent students with otherwise interchangeable credentials.

After a four-hour screaming session in the woods, Charlie comes home to his parents, who try their best to calm him down. But Charlie's anger intensifies as he launches into a Reddit-style tirade about how white men like him get screwed over in a world that's beginning to open up to women and people of color.

He notes that the top slot at the school paper went not to him but to a female student who, in his opinion, lacks leadership and can't write for shit. He goes off on a tangent about why a classmate of South American heritage gets to wear the Lantinx label when he's clearly a descendent of white, Spanish conquistadors. His rant peaks when he ponders whether Kim Kardashian, who is half Armenian, should be given Asian American status.

Charlie's outrage exemplifies the clueless, unchecked privilege of the archetypal straight, white American male. Later, when he reverses his attitude, he's even more entrenched in his new perspective than he was in his old one, unable and unwilling to see outside his own point of view. Grant's performance sizzles as hormone-addled Charlie spits diatribe after diatribe, fists clenched and teeth gritted.

But how did he get here if his parents are liberal, conscious, forward-thinking intellectuals with an eye toward inclusion? Sherri certainly thinks of herself that way. She's spent her entire Hillcrest career pushing the school toward diversity and inclusion.

In a comic, nearly sitcom-like B plot, Sherri struggles with color-blind baby-boomer colleague Roberta (Mary Adams-Smith) to create an admissions brochure that adequately reflects the school's 18 percent nonwhite population. That percentage is a feather in Sherri's cap; she worked to bump it up from single to double digits during her tenure.

Roberta's first attempt yields a catalog with only three pictures of students of color out of 52 total photos, one of which shows the light-skinned Perry. According to Sherri, he doesn't read as Black and therefore doesn't count as a visual representation of diversity. Roberta's second attempt swings the pendulum too far, producing a brochure with only people of color. Sherri tells her that doesn't work, either, because diversity doesn't mean the erasure of white people.

Roberta insists that Sherri be explicit in what she wants, because she doesn't (can't? won't?) understand. Does Sherri want particular skin tones? Is it about specific races being showcased? She makes Sherri list out what she wants like ingredients in a recipe.

Sherri seems to be a diversity champion, but we later learn that getting her son into a top university is her real priority. And she has her own racial discomfort. During a hangout with longtime family friend Ginnie (Amy Brennan), Perry's white mom, Sherri says she couldn't use the photo of Perry in the school brochure because it was blurry, not because his complexion wouldn't help prospective nonwhite students visualize themselves at Hillcrest. She seems to know that her opinion is dubious, otherwise she wouldn't have lied.

Ginnie and Sherri eventually discuss Perry's acceptance and Charlie's deferral, but the conversation spins out of control when Sherri suggests that Perry's race may have been a factor. Ginnie is rightly incensed, though she has her own prejudices. She wrinkles her nose when she finds out Hillcrest's recent bump in diversity is heavily weighted by Asian students.

Producing this show a stone's throw from Middlebury College is deliciously tongue-in-cheek. Not only is the school mentioned repeatedly in Admissions, the "little ivy" has likely dealt with issues similar to those explored in the play. The college's website states that the class of 2026 is 52 percent students of color, up from 47 percent in the previous class.

Strum stages the show partially in the round, with the Rosen-Mason family's chic home pushing into the middle of the Town Hall Theater's auditorium. Blond wood and a taupe sofa lighten the open-concept kitchen and living room, a granite-topped island at its center. With few set pieces, scenic designer Sarah Pope McCright accurately conjures the domain of the enlightened upper-middle class.

By contrast, Sherri's office holds an imposing, dark-wood antique desk topped with a silver MacBook, hinting at the institution's out-of-date practices and Sherri's attempt to modernize them.

Though a bit of tightening could have made some of the show's tense moments even more explosive, the cast pulls off the tricky task of portraying characters that are both likable and unlikable. Adams-Smith's Roberta does seem to genuinely want to understand the nuance of showcasing diversity, but she does so with the grace of a hippopotamus. She pinches her words and lets her body language tell the story of her annoyance by laboring over wrapping a scarf around her neck and yanking a winter hat into place.

Necrason, Nagle and Brennan play smugness perfectly, their deliveries almost lyrical as they prance through self-satisfied dialogue. When Bill harangues Charlie after the teen makes some shocking choices in reaction to his deferral, Nagle plays the scene with a nasty combination of rage and complacency. Necrason and Brennan showcase the fragility of their characters' friendship with a few encounters that keep their emotions politely bubbling under a veneer of civility.

The play does not attempt to fix any problems or solve racism, nor should it. Good satire provides a springboard for its viewers to examine the complex issues it pokes fun at. And Admissions gets an A in satire.

Admissions by Joshua Harmon, directed by Rebecca Strum, produced by Middlebury Acting Company. Thursday through Saturday, October 13 through 15, 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, October 16, 2 p.m., at Town Hall Theater in Middlebury. $15-30. A panel discussion follows the performance on Saturday, October 15. middleburyactors.org

The original print version of this article was headlined "Old College Try"