“Astonishing!” “Daring!” “Provocative!”
Thus shout the posters for Admissions, the new comedy-drama from Bad Jews playwright Joshua Harmon that transfers to Trafalgar Studios from New York’s Lincoln Center after making a splash across the pond and scooping up a couple of best play awards. Don’t believe the buzz: it’s none of those things.
Daniel Aukin’s polished production stars ER and Doctor Who’s Alex Kingston as Sherri, the admissions officer of a fancy, upper-middle-class prep school in New England. She’s simultaneously trying to up her establishment’s diversity credentials, and desperately praying for her 17-year-old son to get into Yale. When he doesn’t, but his mixed-race friend does, principles and personal ambitions come into conflict in an entirely predictable, screamingly schematic way.
There’s nothing formally adventurous about the play. There’s no dialogue, only dialectic; the “jokes” are easy, ill-judged jibes at diversity quotas; and it all takes place on Paul Wills’ squeaky clean, open-plan set, complete with kitchen island and bar stools. Meanwhile, the endless, repetitive back-and-forth about the ethics of accessibility takes place without a single actual ethnic minority on stage.
We’ve seen this sort of thing before, often in the smaller studio space at the same venue: a feted American work, considered outrageous and audacious over there, that seems the exact opposite over here. On a British stage, Admissions seems more wrapped up in its own sense of derring-do, more puffed-up on its own pull-quotes, than anything else.
It’s just so unapologetically, unashamedly a play for white, middle-class audiences, wrestling with their consciences about being over-privileged and unprepared to do anything about it. Yes, it’s deftly put together from a dramaturgical perspective, and yes, it’s full of artfully constructed oratories, but it all amounts to little more than well-constructed hand-wringing over white guilt.
Kingston gives a perfectly fine performance at the centre of a perfectly fine production, sliding easily between exasperated professional and exasperated mother. She’s ably supported by Andrew Woodall as her brusque headteacher husband, by Ben Edelman as her extremely adolescent, tantrum-throwing son, and by Sarah Hadland as her puffer-jacketed pal Ginnie. Aukin arranges things with efficiency, rather than flair, and the whole thing is over in 100 minutes, without an interval.
In truth, it’s a shame such a solid cast and crew has been wasted on such a stultifying script. Harmon’s play is capably acted and capably staged, but it’s a work that, quite frankly, was not worth the air fare to fly it over here. Next to its predecessor at Trafalgar Studios, Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night, Admissions seems like a real step backwards.