‘Admissions’: When white doesn’t mean right

Cheryl McMahon and Maureen Keillor in SpeakEasy Stage’s “Admissions.” Maggie Hall Photography

BOSTON — Two young men have their eyes on the prize: A coveted seat at Yale University, an iconic Ivy League college.

One is biracial and talented; the other is white and talented. One will get in, and one won’t, and the fallout from that are the sparks that start the fire in Joshua Harmon’s “Admissions,” the winner of the 2018 Drama Desk Award for Best Play, now a  SpeakEasy Stage Company production in the Roberts Studio Theater in the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts through Nov. 30.

In some ways, the show has a “ripped from the headlines” feel to it, given the ongoing so-called “Varsity Blues” scandal that has seen parents spend, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars to try and get their children admitted to prestigious colleges. Then there was the lawsuit against Harvard accusing it of discriminating against Asian-American students, with a judge ruling the college’s current admission policy legal.

Playwright Harmon has become a favorite at SpeakEasy after the troupe’s excellent productions of two of Harmon’s previous works, “Bad Jews” and “Significant Others.”

Harmon has a gift for being able to have his characters throw dramatically different shades on the same issue and have all the sides ring true. He’s not afraid of being provocative and controversial – in fact, both he and his characters thrive on it.

Here, he explores issues such as racial identity, affirmative action, white guilt vs. White privilege, and hypocrisy across the board.

Hillcrest is a small, exclusive boarding school, described in program notes as a “second tier, on-the-cusp-of-becoming-a-first-tier prep/ boarding school in rural New Hampshire. There, the husband and wife team of Head of School Bill Mason (Michael Kaye) and Admissions Director Sherri Rosen-Mason (Maureen Keiller) have been steadily raising the school’s profile, especially among students of color, who have tripled in number under their 15-year watch to 18 percent of the student body.

Marianna Bassham and Maureen Keiller in “Admissions.” Maggie Hall Photography

That means the school catalogue being designed for the Admissions Department by Roberta (Cheryl McMahon), the harried head of development whose family has longtime connections to the school, should emphasize the school’s diversity … to a point.

And when the first draft of the catalogue features only three photos with students of color, a clearly frustrated Sherri sets out to “educate” Roberta.

Roberta quickly ups the ante when she accuses Sherri of being fixated on diversity almost to the exclusion of everything else.   “You’re the one who seems to care about race– you’re always ‘race, race, race …’”

But it gets complicated. What happens when there’s a photo of a student whom everyone on campus knows is African-American, but may not come off as such in a simple photo?

That someone happens to be Perry, the son of a white woman named Ginnie Peters (Marianna  Bassham), whose black husband Don also teaches at Hillcrest, and who are close friends with Sherri and Bill..

And, oh, have we mentioned that Perry and Sherri and Bill’s son, Charlie Luther Mason (BU theater student Nathan Malin), with a middle name a tribute to MLK, don’t cha know, are best friends and both have applied for early decision from Yale?

When Perry gets in and Charlie is deferred to the general pool, the issue of race explodes from just beneath the surface, bringing with it regrets, recriminations and some memorable rants from Harmon’s characters.

The first is  a show-stopping, let-it-all-hang-out oratorio by Charlie, who  rages against all slights, real or imagined, and has a list of grievances having to do with being a white male in a rapidly-changing racial landscape.

That is followed by an back-at-you from his father, who calls out his son for being as a spoiled, privileged white brat who’s afraid of letting any deserving student of color get in line ahead of him.

Sherri’s friendship with Ginnie dissolves when Sherri questions whether race played a role in Perry’s admission, and Ginnie then throws out of whether it also played a role when Bill was named head of school instead of her husband Don, who was also interested in the job.

When a chastened Charlie takes a new tack towards the race issue that throws his college career into doubt, the rubber meets the road, and white guilt runs head-on into white privilege when it comes to his parents’ efforts to rescue his college prospects.

Speakeasy’s always excellent dramaturgy provides insight into Harmon’s decision not to include any African-American actors in the piece. He said in an interview there’s “something morally reprehensible about asking an actor of color to stand up and speak the point of view of a person of color – as written by a white person.”

He also said he was trying to hold up a mirror to white liberalism while at the same time realizing it is “just one narrow slice of a much larger conversation.”

Director Paul Daigneault has parlayed perfect casting and his feel for Harmon’s work into a production that vividly challenges the viewpoints of both its characters and theater-goers.

Harmon won’t wrap things in a nice bow and doesn’t have to. By the final curtain, he has laid out the questions in stark terms and made us think and examine our own feelings on the issues.

We hoped the country would evolve into a post-racial world after the election of a black president, but we are finding that the issues around race are both persistent and, for the present at least, intractable. There remains much to think about and much to be done.

The SpeakEasy Stage Company production of Joshua Harmon’s “Admissions.” In the Roberts Studio Theater in the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts through Nov. 30. Directed by Paul Daigneault. SpeakEasystage.com

Michael Kaye, Maureen Keiller and Nathan Malin in SpeakEasy Stage’s “Admissions.” Maggie Hall Photography