With “Admissions,” playwright Joshua Harmon tries to tackle questions of privilege and racism within the confines of an elite private prep school. The drama is basically 90 minutes of just that, as seen through the eyes of five white characters expounding on how they feel about race and how extremely hard they are working to make the world less racist. The author of the scathing “Bad Jews,” Harmon is known for satire, and this presumably is one. How else to classify a show wherein white people reward their anti-racism work with celebratory bottles of wine?
But “Admissions,” now in its Chicago premiere at Theater Wit, feels like the very thing it condemns via satire. Condemning racism via a drama that doesn’t have a single non-white character seems unintentionally ironic at best. As it turns out, it’s also not a great formula for compelling drama, because listening to a group of avowedly pro-diversity white people weep and holler for an hour and a half about how racism makes them feel, isn’t very interesting.
When: Through May 12
Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont
Tickets: $12 – $48
Directed by Jeremy Wechsler, “Admissions” seems — on the surface — to arrive with stunning timeliness. Less than 48 hours after the show’s opening, actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman were due in court, the most public faces of a sweeping scandal alleging that extremely rich people paid huge sums of money so that their children could cheat on college entrance exams and/or pose as top-tier athletes prime for recruitment by the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities. But the show’s title notwithstanding, current events aren’t reflected here. In “Admissions,” a phone call to a distant relative or a plea to a friend is about as far as the parents will go when it comes to getting their kids to win favor with college admissions boards.
One of these parents is Sherri, (Meighan Gerachis), the admissions officer at Hillcrest, an East coast prep school where she has “worked like a dog” to make the student body nominally less white (she’s increased students of color from four to 18 percent during her tenure). Sherri’s husband is Hillcrest headmaster Bill (Stephen Walker). Their son Charlie (Kyle Curry) is a Hillcrest senior. The plot kicks into high gear when Charlie finds out he he didn’t get into Yale. That his black best friend Perry did throws Charlie into a raving spiral of a man-boy tantrum. Charlie is certain he would have made it if he weren’t white, and that not being white is the reason Perry was accepted.
While Bill lectures Charlie on being a “racist little s—,” Sherri wrings her hands and empathizes with her son’s unhappiness. In a conversation with Perry’s white mother Ginnie (India Whiteside), Sherri implies that Perry’s race played a role in his Yale acceptance. Ginnie isn’t having it. The friendship ends. Sherri feels terribly misunderstood.
Charlie, meanwhile, does a rather stunning about-face between scenes. He tells his parents that his privilege is oppressing others, and that the best way to combat this is to rescind all of his college applications so that a deserving minority student can take his spot. When he insists that he’ll go to community college, Bill and Sherri unleash havoc, threatening to make Charlie pay for college himself if he does.
Charlie responds by calling his parents hypocrites who are only in favor of diversity if it doesn’t cost them anything. And here we have the sole, strong moment in the whole of “Admissions.” It works because it makes every non-minority person in the audience confront their own limits. Promulgating diversity isn’t so easy when it means you personally might have to give up something.
Wechsler’s cast is mostly fine, although a shade under-rehearsed. Gerachis’ Sherri is recognizable as a do-gooder who believes that the beneficiaries of her diversity work owe her. There’s a telling moment when Sherri grouses about the school’s most prominent black alumnus and his refusal to donate to Hillcrest. “No gratitude,” she mutters. “We made him.” It’s an ugly, predictable revelation.
As Charlie, Curry gets the show’s most blazing monologue, a wild-eyed rant against the advantages afforded his female and black peers. His sudden about-face to Community College Martyrdom comes way out of left field, but Curry’s teenage angst is mercurial enough to make you kind of believe it.
The supporting actors do the best work here. As one of Sherri’s employees, Judi Schindler’s lemon-lipped disapproval at a world where “everything” is about race sounds all-too familiar. As the white mother of a mixed-race child, Whiteside’s refusal to let Sherri off the hook is bracing.
Good work aside, it’s impossible to fully recommend “Admissions.” It’s not saying anything new, or especially memorably. And if the days wherein you could stage a play about race without a single person of color on stage aren’t entirely over, they should be.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.