Inclusivity begins at home in Joshua Harmon’s blisteringly edgy comedy of embarrassment
Joshua Harmon can make you laugh and cringe simultaneously. He gives his characters space for long rants – and plenty of rope to hang themselves. In his earlier hit comedy Bad Jews, relationships come under strain when family members are forced together for their grandfather’s funeral. In Admissions the issue is getting into the ‘right’ university, which family members centre stage have on their minds on several levels.
Sherri Rosen-Mason, head of admissions at posh New Hampshire private school Hillcrest, is on a long-term crusade to increase the percentage of ethnic minority students. Her proud boast as the play opens is of an increase of 300% in the last 15 years, from 6% to 18%.
Harmon’s elegantly constructed action follows Sherri, her husband Bill – the head of Hillcrest – and teenage son Charlie, who’s about to leave the school. True to their liberal credentials, his parents may have given him the middle name Luther (think Martin Luther King), but all three anticipate top peoples’ university Yale as the next step. The flashpoints, months apart, are the stuff of the drama and all take place in the family’s fashionably open-plan kitchen. Played out on Paul Wills’s detailed naturalistic design, these increasingly tense and argumentative scenes highlight the conflict between Sherri’s public ideals and her ambitions for Charlie.
As Sherri, Alex Kingston blazes with righteous indignation from the get-go, taking unfortunate gopher Roberta (excellent Margot Leicester) to task for failing to include enough photos of students of colour to reflect Hillcrest’s ethnic diversity in the latest school brochure. Audience toes might well start to curl as they pore over the brochure, counting heads in photos of students at work and play and Roberta is sent back to the drawing board.
Comfortable in her self-righteousness, Sherri rejoices with best friend and fellow liberal Ginnie (pitch-perfect Sarah Hadland) at the news that her son Perry, bestie of Sherri’s son Charlie, has got into Yale. The seed of discomfiture is planted though, as Sherri and equally complacent husband Bill (suitably abrasive Andrew Woodall) await news of Charlie’s application. By this time Harmon has slipped in that Perry is mixed race and Charlie “technically Jewish” through his mum.
So some months down the line, as Alex and Ben toast each other at achieving 20% diversity at Hillcrest, it’s not difficult to guess their bubble is about to burst. Nothing, though, could anticipate the eruption into their celebrations of the fireball of wounded indignation and disappointment that is Charlie, fresh from hearing his application to Yale has been deferred. Two hours alone screaming in the woods, far from calming him down, have psyched him up. Further humiliated by Perry’s successful application, he is in paranoiac overdrive.
The tirade that follows is wildly funny, acutely embarrassing and brilliantly paced by Ben Edelman, reprising his role of Charlie from the play’s New York production. His fevered dissection of diversity leads him to the conclusion that there is a hierarchy of who is “a person of colour” where Hispanics trump Jews so that “Jews are way down the pecking order”, behind “grandsons of Nazis who ran off to South America”, climaxing hysterically with “Spanish conquistadors instead of corpses in Auschwitz”.
A shocked Sherri articulates her self-deprecating dismay with “looks like we’ve successfully raised a Republican”, while his unsympathetic father brands him a “spoilt little overprivileged brat”. If it’s harder to predict where Harmon might go from there, suffice it to say that in subsequent months Charlie displays an ability to volte-face that piles on the discomfiture both onstage and in the audience.
It’s clearly a careful authorial decision for Perry to remain offstage, perhaps because it’s white guilt and paranoia Harmon is examining, perhaps a piling on of irony in the light of Alex’s attempts to reflect diversity in her brochure. It could also be a quieter, more subtle way for Harmon to puncture complacency in a play that is loud, but certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Johan Persson
Admissions runs until Saturday 25 May 7.30pm, 2.30pm (Thu & Sat only). From £30. Trafalgar Studios, SW1A 2DY. www.atgtickets.com/venues/trafalgar-studios