Is pizza racist? Is Kim Kardashian an Asian-American because she’s half Armenian and Armenia is in Asia? Oh, and should a less-qualified black student be given a place at Yale over a more-qualified white student? What if the white kid is a child of privilege? What if the black kid is, too?
Such are the questions raised in Admissions, Joshua Harmon’s scathing and searching new play at Lincoln Center, directed con brio by Daniel Aukin. It’s a relentless, often very funny exposé of the hypocrisies and self-contradictions of the diversity craze that defines virtually every elite campus in America.
Harmon has hit upon the perfect figure to personify this folly: Sherri Rosen-Mason (Jessica Hecht), the dean of admissions at an elite private school in New Hampshire who spends every waking hour fretting about how to add more diversity to the student body. That kind of dedication to opening doors to persons of color, though, means slamming one in the face of her son Charlie (Ben Edelman), a senior at the school, who gets rejected from Yale. His best friend, Perry, who has less impressive test scores, grades, and extracurricular activities but boasts one parent who is half black, gets in. It seems obvious why Perry was admitted to Yale and Charlie wasn’t, especially to people like Sherri and her husband (Andrew Garman), the head of the private school, who have dedicated their careers to rejecting Charlies and fawning over Perrys.
The New York City theater scene is so insular — virtually everyone on both sides of the curtain is of the Left — that it paradoxically offers far more space for self-questioning than you’d expect. Because it’s simply assumed that no Republicans are listening in, ever, progressives in theater fall into animated quarrels among themselves about the defects in their own moral reasoning. Admissions is what happens when they’re forced to work through the injustices created by their social-justice obsession. Late at night. After a couple of glasses of pinot noir.
An amusing opener gives us a hint of the absurdity to come: A well-meaning but out-of-touch lady from the development office at the school, Roberta (Ann McDonough), has assembled pictures for the school brochure that don’t feature enough diversity. A picture of Perry, for instance, doesn’t cut it with Sherri, who balks: “He doesn’t always photograph — he looks whiter than my son in this picture.” When Roberta asks whether Sherri wants “more dark-skinned ones,” the admissions officer erupts: “Did you really just say dark-skinned?” No, she merely wants “pictures of students who are recognizably minorities.” Roberta’s confusion is easily understood: She’s about 70 and struggles with this impenetrable new language, the fog machine of diversity-speak. To her, the pizza served at the school is just something kids like. To Sherri, it’s grave evidence of an “ethnocentric meal plan.”
It’s a relentless, often very funny exposé of the hypocrisies and self-contradictions of the diversity craze that defines virtually every elite campus in America.
Charlie, when he learns he is rejected from Yale after having spent four years struggling mightily to get in, reacts calmly enough: He goes into the woods and screams for four hours. When he returns, he has some more screaming to do: At his parents and the class they represent, for their authorship of his predicament. In a caustic five-minute rant, he ridicules the nonsensical logic of the diversity commissars: Is Kim Kardashian a minority because of her Armenian heritage? Is Penelope Cruz a person of color because she’s from Spain? If so, why not the French and the Italians and their descendants? Why does Cristobal Hernandez, a kid Charlie knows from Chile, get preferential treatment despite being the white son of a wealthy diplomat? Why should the descendants of Nazis who moved to South America have an admissions edge over people like Charlie, whose mother is Jewish and lost many relatives in the Holocaust? “They found a new way to keep Jews out: They just made us white instead,” he shouts.
Harmon maintains a balance of competing views, though, allowing Charlie’s dad Bill to score points in response. “So you’ll go to Dartmouth,” he replies angrily. “You’ll go to Duke. And you’ll be fine. And you know how I know you’ll be fine? Because you’re a white guy and you don’t have Down syndrome.” Oh, and “latching onto your dead grandfather’s Auschwitz cousins because you get deferred from Yale is kind of tasteless, if you ask me.”
A nasty argument about a fraught cultural issue is plenty to build a play around. Yet the playwright, Harmon, sharpens the dispute into a dagger with a late development that pits Charlie’s youthful, all-in idealism against the corrupted middle-aged variety espoused by his parents. Charlie comes to repent his earlier loss of temper and segues into an I-love-Big-Brother moment in which he outdoes his parents, advancing even farther along the chain of logic that their generation has constructed, and in doing so, he mercilessly exposes the hypocrisy of their position. Sherri and Bill never planned for that; they’re elites, they’ll always be elites, and what enables their piety is the certain knowledge that people like them will always be able to pull strings, to fix things for their progeny. In the Church of Diversity, they’re Sunday parishioners but Monday–Saturday sinners. If Charlie were actually to live that church’s gospel, it would be devastating to them. It would ruin them. Yet this is exactly what Charlie forces upon them.
The diversity obsession, as Charlie makes clear, is not a victimless exercise. When it comes to filling places at institutions, there are only so many seats at each table. For every Perry who gets in, there’s a Charlie who does not.
People like Sherri and Bill have stopped arguing that being black automatically makes you underprivileged (Perry’s dad is an English teacher); these days they simply make the diversity argument, which amounts to claiming that having a (very slightly) darker skin tone makes Perry more desirable to have around than Charlie. The conflict with the American ideal of meritocracy is obvious. So is the solution: The bien pensant liberals use all of their connections to make sure it’s somebody else’s kid who gets turned away from the table.