In the engrossingly spark-filled SpeakEasy Stage Company production of Joshua Harmon’s “Admissions,’’ what starts out as conversation escalates into argumentation as often as not.
But then, things are bound to get noisy when there’s a high-speed collision between publicly stated principles and private behavior.
This is the third play by Harmon that SpeakEasy has presented in the past five years — a rare, and in this case astute, commitment by a single theater company to a living playwright’s work. As Harmon demonstrated in “Bad Jews’’ and to a lesser extent in “Significant Other,’’ he’s pretty fearless when it comes to probing the tender spots where proclaimed identity meets the true self.
The playwright’s subject in “Admissions’’ — adroitly directed by Paul Daigneault and starring a never-better Maureen Keiller and a very impressive Nathan Malin — is white privilege: the many corners where it can lurk, the many forms it can take, the disguises it can wear.
Although Harmon wrote “Admissions’’ before the Varsity Blues scandal that ensnared Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, among others, his play also captures the insanity surrounding the college application process, the maniacal lengths some parents will go to get their kids into what are considered the top schools, and the pressure cooker that parental mania creates for the kids themselves.
There are things to quibble with in “Admissions,’’ but Harmon’s dialogue is as scalpel-sharp and bitingly funny as ever, and his sense of timing and pace is such that he knows when a clever twist or two can add dramatic force to a scenario that is already plenty fraught.
In sifting through the blend of posturing, blind spots, and hypocrisy that characterize the attitudes of some white liberals, “Admissions’’ stands as an edgier companion to Larissa FastHorse’s “The Thanksgiving Play,’’ currently at Lyric Stage Company of Boston. FastHorse’s satire is about the chaos that ensues when a self-consciously “woke’’ trio of white “teaching artists’’ creates a theater piece designed to celebrate Native American Heritage Month, only to learn that the actress they see as the linchpin of their show’s cultural authenticity is not Native American after all.
Authenticity is also a central preoccupation of “Admissions,’’ which focuses on Sherri (Keiller), the hard-charging head of admissions at a prestigious prep school. Sherri, who is white, prides herself on her unflagging efforts to increase the school’s percentage of students of color. Indeed, she has staked her identity — professional and personal — on being a fervent champion of diversity.
Then Sherri’s teenage son Charlie (Malin) is deferred from Yale, his top choice, while his best friend Perry, who is the son of an African-American father and a white mother, is accepted. (Neither Perry nor his father are seen in “Admissions.’’)
When Sherri is presented with an opportunity to put her actions where her mouth has long been, when theoretical push comes to real-world shove, she reacts in a way that is substantially at odds with her long-held sense of who she is. Her reaction ignites tensions between her and friend Ginnie (Marianna Bassham), Perry’s mother. The most scorching exchanges, though, are between Charlie and Sherri, and are given the crackle of electricity by Keiller and Malin, a student at Boston University whose excellent performance provides another reminder of the talent and the caliber of theater training on campuses hereabouts.
Another asset is the ever-reliable Cheryl McMahon, who makes the most of a juicy comic role as an alternately bewildered and exasperated development officer who keeps striking out in her attempts to satisfy Sherri by creating a recruitment brochure that will present the school as a model of diversity. However, Sherri’s self-righteous husband, Bill (Michael Kaye), the head of the prep school, registers more as a collection of talking points than as a full-fledged character.
A larger issue is Harmon’s decision to include no black characters. In a program note that makes clear how thoroughly he thought through the issue, Harmon writes that he sought to capture what “well-meaning white liberals’’ say and do behind closed doors, and “expos(e) something honest and true and real about how privilege operates,’’ adding that "there would actually be something morally reprehensible about asking an actor of color to stand up in the middle of that and speak the point of view of a person of color — as written for them by a white person.’’
A valid point, certainly, but one is still left with the nagging sense that an African-American voice would have added a necessary, deepening layer to “Admissions.’’ As it stands, that perspective is represented by Ginnie, whose withering verdict on Sherri once her friend’s hypocrisy becomes apparent is: “You want things to look different, but I’m not sure you want them to be different.’’
Keiller, a subtle actress of no wasted motion, draws us in to Sherri’s inward struggle at that moment and throughout “Admissions’’ as she is forced to confront her own contradictions. Sherri’s expression at the end of the play speaks volumes: It’s the face of a woman who has been forced to take a very long look in the mirror and does not at all like what she sees.
Play by Joshua Harmon. Directed by Paul Daigneault. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through Nov. 30. Tickets start at $25, 617-933-8600, www.speakeasystage.com