Inside a rehearsal room at the Calderwood Pavilion, Maureen Keiller is shooting daggers at Cheryl McMahon. It’s not a fight sequence. Rather, the actresses are working through a scene in Joshua Harmon’s razor-sharp drama “Admissions” in which Keiller’s self-righteous Sherri Rosen-Mason, the head of admissions at a tony New Hampshire prep school, is focusing her gaze at McMahon’s befuddled Roberta, a member of the school’s development staff. As the women tangle over a draft of the Hillcrest admissions catalog, an exasperated Sherri points out that only three out of the 52 photos feature people of color, and she admonishes Roberta for her failure to see the problem.
“I’ve worked like a dog the past 15 years so that our school looks a little more like the country in which it is situated,” says Sherri. “If [a prospective student] open[s] up that catalog, and they don’t see anyone who looks like them . . . they will not apply. And why should they?”
“All that comes out of your mouth is diversity, diversity, diversity,” Roberta snaps back. “It’s exhausting . . . Until the day I die, I won’t forget the faculty meeting where you railed against the ethnocentric meal plan. . . . Kids like pizza. Period. They don’t care what continent it comes from.”
The SpeakEasy Stage Company production of the satirical drama, at the Roberts Studio Theatre Oct. 25-Nov. 30, pushes buttons as it takes aim at white privilege, white guilt, and the pieties and hypocrisies of the left when it comes to equality, diversity, and inclusion. Indeed, the play asks: What happens when those high-minded values clash with our personal desires and self-interests? With its double-edged title, “Admissions” captured both Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for best play and is among the top 10 most-produced plays in the country this season, according to American Theatre Magazine.
SpeakEasy produced Harmon’s earlier plays “Bad Jews” and “Significant Other,” and director Paul Daigneault loves the playwright’s crackling one-liners and whiplash-inducing dialogue exchanges. He says the comedy in “Admissions” often arises out of a place of unease. “What I’m hoping happens is that audiences are laughing one second and then they’re almost appalled that they’re laughing in the next moment,” Daigneault says. “It’s going to make people uncomfortable, and it’s going to turn the mirror back on the audience.”
In the play, it’s clear that Sherri takes her job and her diversity goals seriously, and not only because her husband, Bill, is head of school at Hillcrest. “She wants to make the world — and the school — a better place, more diverse and more equal,” Keiller says. “But in trying to do that, you can compartmentalize people in a way. You start to treat them like commodities.”
Sherri and Bill’s ideals are challenged when their 17-year-old son, Charlie, an academic high-achiever who’s long dreamed of going to Yale, receives a deferred admission to the school while his biracial best friend, Perry, is accepted.
A disappointed Charlie reacts with frustration, resentment, and indignation in a harangue directed at his parents about the “unfairness” of his rejection. He argues that he has better grades and test scores than Perry; he questions what makes someone a person of color, what constitutes diversity, and who gets to decide; and he laments being lumped in with undesirable, entitled white men.
“He feels that something has been taken away from him that he never really had in the first place,” says Nathan Malin, who plays Charlie. “I think there’s an expectation within his social class that he’s going to get in, that this is the path he’s on. There’s that famous quote, ‘When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.’ ”
Charlie’s horrified parents push back hard, with his father telling him, “Life is not fair, but it’s not little white boys in private schools in New England who have it so bad.” Sherri, a helicopter-style mama bear, may be dismayed by her son’s reaction but is still fiercely protective of him. She also warns Bill that Charlie not getting into Yale could limit him in the future.
Eventually, Charlie’s resentment abates, and he comes to realize the importance of the values his parents have instilled in him. But when he sets in motion a plan that would create the kind of “change he wants to see in the world,” Sherri and Bill erupt, insisting that he’s jeopardizing his own future.
“Sherri fights for those [ethnic and racial] boxes to check [on an application], so that there’s a more equal playing field,” says Keiller. “But when it comes to her son and when it entails them making a personal sacrifice, everything gets called into question.”
“Everybody in the play is a hypocrite, and everybody in the play has good intentions,” says Michael Kaye, who plays Bill. “What I love about it is that you agree with all of the characters at least some of the time, and you disagree vehemently with them at least some of the time.”
Critics have observed that it’s a daring — perhaps problematic — choice for Harmon to write a play that grapples with racism and diversity without putting any people of color onstage. To Harmon, 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 explained in an interview published in SpeakEasy’s program for the play. "That’s just not my story to tell.”
For Malin, a 20-year-old junior at Boston University's College of Fine Arts, the central arguments of the play revolve around thorny questions about access and opportunity. "White liberal Americans want the world to look different and sound different, but do they really want things to be different?" he says. "The play asks the left to take a look at how committed you really are to this cause."
Says Daigneault, the director: “Should white men in positions of power get out of the way to allow other people in? And, hello, I am one of them because I run a theater company. Or should we exercise our power or our influence to invite other people to the table? That conversation is incredibly compelling, and the reason I love [Harmon’s] plays is because he doesn’t tie the answers up in a neat little bow. He leaves you to form your own opinions.”
Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, Oct. 25-Nov. 30. Tickets from $25, 617-933-8600, www.SpeakEasyStage.com