The world’s most fashionable astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, recently tweeted, “Creativity that satisfies & affirms your world view is Entertainment. Creativity that challenges & disrupts your world view is Art.” Despite a fair number of comments that point out how (a) simplistic, (b) clichéd, and (c) generally silly this sentiment is, at the moment of my writing it’s garnered almost 65,000 likes and over 21,000 retweets. Clearly, we like the idea that Art Is Hard, that to earn its exalted status it should unsettle and disturb us. But what about creative endeavors that disturb not in an astonishing, productively destabilizing way, but through their misguidedness? What about works of art — or entertainment, since good theater, whatever Tyson might have to say, is always both — that are straining to engage with something complex and difficult and, however well-intentioned, ultimately end up trading in muddle-headed, troubling rhetoric?
Such a piece of theater is Joshua Harmon’s Admissions, now at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater under the sharp direction of Daniel Aukin. When the alien historians look back at plays made by Homo sapiens americanus circa 2018, they’ll find a lot like Admissions. It’s not that they’re all bad plays — Harmon’s isn’t, and it would be easier to dismiss if it were — but plenty of them are fixing their sights squarely on some ultraheated contemporary issue and then misfiring wildly. It’s enough to make you cringe, and not because your worldview is being artfully disrupted.
Harmon’s issue of choice is race. Specifically, matters surrounding perhaps the most omnipresent of modern acronyms: EDI — Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. His play tells the story of Sherri Rosen-Mason (a tight-lipped, ramrod-backed Jessica Hecht), the very liberal admissions officer at Hillcrest, a prestigious college-prep school in New Hampshire. Sherri has, by her own account, “worked like a dog” for 15 years to take the school from 4 percent students of color to 18 percent. She’s proud of her work — as is her husband, Bill (Andrew Garman, both genial and biting), the school’s very liberal headmaster —- and she doesn’t consider it done. As Sherri tells Roberta (Ann McDonough as a relatably put-upon elderly administrator) in the play’s first scene, 18 percent is “still an embarrassingly low number, but it’s 300 percent better” than when she started.
Sherri is taking Roberta to task. She’s disappointed with her colleague’s work on Hillcrest’s admissions catalogue, which features, among its 52 photos, only three students of color. If nonwhite prospective students “open up that catalogue, and they don’t see anyone who looks like them, that will be the end of their journey,” Sherri argues, using that special blend of marked emphasis and faux-patient condescension in which secondary-school teachers specialize, “They will not apply. And why should they? … Roberta, I guess my question for you is, do you not care if this school is diverse? Does that not matter to you?”
And so begins a play that Harmon clearly intends as a pointed deflation of white self-righteousness but that winds up undermining the ideas it’s striving to address. Our sympathies are plainly pushed toward Roberta in this opening scene: Harmon is stacking the emotional deck so that we get on the side of the well-meaning, un-PC old lady who doesn’t “see color” and isn’t “a race person,” not on the side of the social-justice warrior. Despite her self-righteousness, there’s a good amount of right in Sherri’s arguments — but she’s so immediately unlikable and obviously self-deceiving that we stop wanting to listen to her. Harmon is walking a dangerous line: He’s trying to point out hypocrisy, but he’s risking confirmation bias. You can sense the audience relaxing as they’re given permission to judge and laugh at Sherri: Yes, I always suspected this whole EDI business was getting blown out of proportion. Why can’t everyone just calm down about it? Poor Roberta. That Sherri sure is a terror.
It’s a very creepy version of throwing the baby out with the bathwater — the baby here being the fight against institutionalized racism; the bathwater being the fact that plenty of white people who join passionately in that fight do so in obnoxious, problematic ways. And the icky irony is that it’s letting the overwhelmingly white audience at Admissions feel like we’re grappling with something difficult, even as we’re being allowed to indulge in some pretty basically racist lines of thought. The Newhouse seats 299 people. Looking around the full house before and after the show, I could find maybe one or two nonwhite faces. Harmon is white. So are all five actors on stage. So is Aukin. So am I. It was an eerie experience — what are we all really doing here, I kept wondering.
The unfortunate truth is that we we’re being manipulated. In the first half of Harmon’s show, we’re being pushed to let our Secret Racist flags fly (“admissions” also means “confessions”), and in the second half we are, like Roberta, being taken to task. It’s a strangely religious structure: Confession and Repentance. Serving as maestro of this tonal shift — and Harmon’s voice-of-the-playwright character — is Sherri’s 17-year-old son Charlie.
Charlie comes raging into the play in its third scene, sounding less like a precocious 17-year-old and more like a jaded, hepped-up 30-something playwright. He’s been screaming in the woods for four hours, he informs us, and now he arrives in his parents’ living room, a logorrheic volcano spewing forth his fury, frustrations, blame, and justifications both racist and sexist for the fact that he just got deferred by Yale while his friend Perry (son of a white mother and mixed-race father) got accepted. While clearly not a teenager, Ben Edelman is a powerful, fiercely articulate actor, and his Charlie takes the play hostage with an epic monologue of white-boy angst.
“I am drowning over here, okay?” Charlie fumes, “I’m not an idiot, I don’t have white pride, but I don’t hate myself … And by the way, who even decides? Cause I would really like to meet the person who decides who counts as a person of color and who doesn’t … Cause my mom’s dad had to escape before like half his family was murdered by Nazis, but now when we all apply to college, I go in the shit pile … [because] — shocker! — they found a new way to keep Jews out: They just made us white instead, and the grandsons of Nazis who came to America go in the exact same pile as me, which makes absolutely no sense … But keep pushing me, keep fucking pushing me … tell me how white I am and how disgusting I am, I’ll just stand in the corner taking it all in until I can’t fucking take it anymore and I all of a sudden break out into a FUCKING SIEG HEIL!!!!!”
That’s just a fraction of Charlie’s rant, and it’s a frankly terrifying thing to listen to. It’s terrifying because the audience loves it. Harmon is on fire here. He’s pouring the full force of his writerly bravado into this speech, and as Charlie rips into the girl who got the editor-in-chief position at the school paper instead of him (“Of COURSE a woman should run the newspaper. IF SHE’S THE BEST CANDIDATE!”) or into the kid from Chile who wants to read more books by writers of color (“Cristobal! YOU’RE WHITE TOO! … Your ancestors were colonizers, not the colonized!”), the laughter in the Newhouse breaks into outright cheers. It’s scary. Edelman is giving a virtuosic performance, but people aren’t clapping for the actor — they’re clapping for what’s coming out of his mouth. There’s that awful sense in the room that, as was so often and so distressingly said of Trump, “He’s just saying what everyone is thinking.”
Charlie’s screed meets with counterpoints of course — his father calls him an “overprivileged brat” and a “racist spoiled little shit” — but they don’t help much. His rant is out there and a good portion of the audience has embraced it. Even when Charlie himself turns 180 degrees later in the play, Harmon can’t quite regain the territory he’s lost. Without giving away the twist of Admissions entirely, it’s enough to say that Charlie is eventually overcome with shame at his post-Yale-deferment tirade — so much so that he commits to some desperate measures to try to walk the EDI talk preached by his parents. Of course, what he doesn’t know is that his super-liberal mom and dad are hypocrites. They’ll fight for diversity in their day jobs, but as soon as they sense that their own son’s educational future — and by extension, in their eyes, his whole life — is in jeopardy, their righteous notions will go out the window.
“Fuck the change,” Sherri immediately snaps, her eyes dead and her voice cold, when Charlie earnestly turns to cliché, stammering that he’s “trying … to be the change I wanted to see in the world.” Hecht is terrifying when she wants to be, and the skillfulness she and her fellow castmates bring to their roles is part of what makes Admissions hard to pick apart. They’re doing a great job with material that’s simultaneously well written and ideologically wack. This late encounter between the enraged Sherri and the penitent Charlie is particularly frustrating: Harmon is trying to turn the tables, to hold up Charlie’s newfound wokeness as Admissions’ actual moral center, when in fact he’s already spent all his best writing on his play’s worst ideas. “That part of my play earlier, the part I really pulled out the stops on?” he seems to be saying to us, “Yeah, don’t listen to that part. That part was bad.” It feels like backpedaling, like a kind of creepy having one’s ethical cake and eating it too.
After a play like Admissions, one tends to hear words like “powerful” and “intense” muttered by the exiting crowd. We think we’ve seen something meaningful because the play talked loudly about a big subject — but what have we in fact seen? A play that seems to reach the bleak conclusion that, in the end, we’re all hopeless hypocrites, a play whose ultimate argument and its very existence seem in conflict with each other. “If there are going to be new voices at the table, someone has to stand up and offer someone else his seat,” protests Charlie. But here’s Harmon, writing a play for five white actors being produced at Lincoln Center for a nearly all white audience, a play that’s claiming the plight of people of color as its cause even as it dexterously sidesteps them in its staging. Here’s a thought: If you’re a white person who genuinely believes white people ought to shut up for a while, then take your own advice.
Admissions is at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center.