November 7, 2019

in Plays

Play (2018)
by Joshua Harmon

Directed by Paul Daigneault

Speakeasy Stage Company
Boston Center for the Arts
South End, Boston
October 25 – November 30, 2019

Scenic design by Eric Levenson

With Maureen Keiller (Sherri Rosen-Mason), Michael Kaye (Bill Mason), Nathan Malin (Charlie Luther Mason), Marianna Bassham (Ginnie Peters), Cheryl McMahon (Roberta)

Nathan Malin as Charlie, Michael Kaye as Bill, Maureen Keiller as Sherri in 'Admissions'

Nathan Malin as Charlie
Michael Kaye as Bill
Maureen Keiller as Sherri
in “Admissions”
Photo: Maggie Hall Photography
Courtesy of Speakeasy Stage Company

A very funny, yet tragicomic, take on college admissions policies and ethnicity.

Sherri Rosen-Mason (Maureen Keiller) is the head of admissions at a small private school and her husband, Bill Mason (Michael Kaye) is the head of the school. Sherri is very concerned about drawing more students of color to the dominantly white school and Bill is entirely behind her. Their son Charlie (Nathan Malin) is a senior at the school and is on the verge of receiving a notice from Yale about early acceptance. His good mixed-race friend, also a senior, has just been admitted there and that boy’s mother, Ginnie (Marianna Bassham), a good friend of Sherri’s, celebrates her son’s success while Charlie’s future hangs in the balance.

Joshua Harmon made his name with the hysterically fun Bad Jews and followed it up with Significant Other. Admissions is somewhat more serious than those, but deals with the issue with a generally deft narrative, and also contains some very funny riffs.

The title, as one might expect, has layers of meaning: both about college admissions in its literal sense, and about admissions characters make about their beliefs in the more subtle and personal sense when avowed policy affects personal choices.

This sometimes very funny, and, at points, serious and imposing, play conveys its complications through an ingeniously conceived plot. While not deeply knotted, the plot involves a significant turn of events which brings into direct focus a challenge to the ideals of the characters involved. Without saying too much about it, one can only acknowledge the cleverness with which playwright Harmon shifts things to enable one of the central characters to pose a dramatic alternative that is weighty and significant.

Some of the writing here is brilliant. Charlie’s long, angry soliloquy in the first half devoted to the question of what counts as a person of color is wonderfully revealing and hysterically funny. His way of analyzing the issue about which Hispanics can rightfully be considered people of color demonstrates Harmon’s very best capacities as playwright.

In the second part, Charlie’s offering of an educational alternative is also beautifully written. It’s as passionate as the former speech, but, in this case, adds a degree of idealism and poignancy that brings his character to full realization. In both cases, Nathan Malin gives wonderful deliveries, turning him, in the first case, into an impetuous and self-involved adolescent, and in the second, into a young visionary. It’s quite a transformation, and Malin pulls it off very well indeed.

Some of the writing is a bit less nuanced. Particularly in the case of Bill’s responses to his son’s reactions, the part seems more caricaturish than it might be. Harmon’s writing of that part is direct, but perhaps a bit too much so. It provides a dramatic challenge to Charlie’s dilemma, but seems too intense to be believable from the mouth of a school head, even if speaking with his own son. Michael Kaye seems to follow the directives to realize that character’s forcefulness, but the result is an extreme portrait of ferocious parenting that begs the question, appropriately raised, about official policy and personal hypocrisy.

As Sherri, Maureen Keiller delivers a knottily evocative portrait of an admissions administrator doing her best to reform antiquated policies about ethnic balances, while being challenged as a mother who has very particular desires for her own son. Particularly at the end, Sherri’s impassioned arguments and determined oversight of Charlie’s choices seem somewhat too pat and determined. Though Keiller makes respectable efforts to be convincing in her maternal directives to Charlie, the writing of the part at this point is also fairly strident and lacks a bit of the nuance that would make it more compelling.

Cheryl McMahon as Roberta, a school staff person who has to help Sherri with production of school marketing materials, is very funny in responding to Sherri’s insistent requirement to include more pictures of people of color. Some of the writing in this section is hilariously revealing and McMahon pulls it off very nicely.

As Ginnie, the mother of the mixed race son who gets into Yale, Marianna Bassham has a dramatic role and renders it quite convincingly. The fruition of her encounter with Sherri is a little too briefly written to enable the character’s response to be taken as seriously as one might, but Bassham’s conveyance of the brief speech in which Ginnie delivers her ethnic sensitivities is concise but well done.

Overall Paul Daigneault’s directing is sometimes brilliant, especially in Charlie’s soliloquies. In other places, like the very long moment in which Roberta puts on her coat, hat and gloves at enormous length, are not as effective.

The set by Eric Levenson, which enables moving back and forth between Sherri’s office and the Mason home, in ingeniously designed.

– BADMan

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