High-achieving students with Ivy League dreams. Helicopter parents with ostensibly liberal views in public but NIMBY tendencies in private. Though it's set in New Hampshire, the world of Joshua Harmon's "Admissions," currently presented by Los Altos Stage Company, is sure to resonate with local audiences.
In "Admissions," which is receiving its west coast premiere in Los Altos, Sherri Rosen-Mason (Kristin Walter) is the (white, liberal) admissions director of Hillcrest, an elite New England prep school. For years, Sherri has dedicated herself to increasing the diversity of the school's student population. She's proud to have brought the number up from a paltry 6% students of color to 18%; each new applicant from a non-white background is cause for celebration. Her husband, Bill (Michael Champlin), is the head of the school and shares her commitment to progressive values.
At the play's start, Sherri is berating elderly development staff member Roberta (Judith Miller) for not including enough students and teachers of color in the school's latest brochure. Old-school Roberta is flustered and claims to be colorblind, while Sherri is smugly righteous, patting herself on the back for having gotten books by old, dead white men off of the curriculum. She's cheered on not only by Bill but by her friend Ginnie (Marjorie Hazeltine), the spouse of one of Hillcrest's few teachers of color.
Sherri and Bill's son, Charlie (Quincy Shaindlin), is a senior at Hillcrest and one of its top students. When Charlie experiences disappointment that he blames on affirmative action run amok, he goes on an intense diatribe about the unfairness of it all (his rant expanding into sexism as well as racism).
Fast forward a few months, after Charlie's done some soul searching and realized just how much Hillcrest (and the world in general) is a bastion of privilege for the white, rich, male and powerful, he makes a startling decision.
"Admissions" in the school sense shifts into admissions of certain beliefs and attitudes. When it comes to their own precious son, Bill and Sherri prove somewhat hypocritical. They aren't, Charlie accuses, interested in real inclusion or equity but rather the optics of such. Their attitudes may be offensive but at the same time, what parent doesn't want "the best" for their child?
Under Gary Landis' steady direction, the cast brings the recognizable characters and Harmon's script to life with humor and energy, even as it gets too shouty. Walter and Champlin are sharp as the flawed parents while Hazeltine and Miller are good in their smaller but memorable roles. Shaindlin, in particular, is excellent as Charlie, a gleam in his eye and the ability to sustain the epic-length monologues given to the character. He's a real talent to watch.
Seafus Smith has created an attractive set that switches the action between Sherri's school office and the Mason family kitchen, complete with real groceries populating the cupboard and fridge. Quick and simple costume changes show the passage of time effectively and the one-act structure keeps the show focused.
"Admissions" is a play by a white person about white people grappling with their whiteness, and as such, all five actors are white. Characters of color, though frequently talked about, are never seen or given voices. This is, presumably, intentional and one hopes it is not lost on the (mostly white) Los Altos audience.
Folks like Bill and Sherri are easy targets. "Admissions" isn't as provocative or insightful as Harmon probably hoped. Still, it's entertaining, timely (given the schadenfreude experienced by many with the recent elite college admissions scandal) and a good reminder to check one's own privilege -- even while mocking others.
Where: Bus Barn Theater, 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos.
When: Through Sept. 29. Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 3 p.m.