“Admissions,” the new comedy by the mischievous playwright Joshua Harmon, could be subtitled, “What liberal white people talk about when they talk about race.”
There are no people of color in the picture, just as “Bad Jews” — a major hit a few seasons ago for Studio Theatre, which is now giving “Admissions” a pleasurably polished showing — was almost exclusively Jewish. Again, the issue is identity: When it comes to 21st-century progressive American “whiteness,” who’s really getting it right?
Harmon has a particular gift for letting indignant young characters cut loose, and in this case he gives full voice to whip-smart Charlie, a white high school senior aiming for Yale. Charlie is wait-listed, but his close (and never seen) biracial friend got in, which raises a blister of resentment. Charlie, played with a realistic blend of idealism and anger by the likable Ephraim Birney, gets a long, uncomfortable screed about race packed with just enough laugh lines to keep you from judging the kid out of hand.
“I hate conservatives,” Charlie reassures his mother in a cooler moment.
Charlie’s mother is Sherri, the prep school’s admissions officer, and this is where the rubber hits the road. Under Sherri’s aggressive watch, the percentage of students of color has increased dramatically. How Sherri reacts when her own lad, the seemingly qualified Charlie, gets wait-listed for a top-flight university sorely tests Sherri’s principles. She wants him in.
If you saw the scorched earth satire “Bad Jews,” you wonder exactly what trap Harmon is setting. “Admissions” is neither as wily nor as consistently funny as its predecessor, but it’s squarely in the ballpark. In both plays, you hear it loud and clear when characters walk on eggshells for fear of saying the wrong thing. The hilarity comes when they stumble anyway, or brazenly rev into moral collisions at maximum speed. Harmon seems to derive special pleasure from watching his figures quarrel over which of them is the most righteous, even when purity is practically impossible to achieve.
Director Mike Donahue’s five actors confidently inhabit this gray area: The arguments ring true, and sometimes sting. Meg Gibson has a benevolent air as Sherri, yet she’s firm as iron with the addled old staffer Roberta, played with a flinty New England accent and soft befuddlement by Sarah Marshall. (“Race, race, race,” Roberta mutters to Sherri, whose guidance about the photographs for the annual recruiting brochure isn’t as exacting as she thinks.)
Kevin Kilner has easy force as Bill, the liberal dad bringing the hammer down when Charlie steps out of line, and Marni Penning gives the most acidic performance as Ginnie, mother of Charlie’s biracial pal. Harmon’s plays excel at articulating arguments, often at length, which makes nearly all these roles meaty. As soon as one figure gets the upper hand, Harmon, whose methods would make George Bernard Shaw grin, turns to the opposite side. He nearly always finds a different person with rational experiences, needs and maybe a festering emotional itch to scratch also demanding justice.
At under two hours, the swift, tightly contained “Admissions” is not expansive; it’s a little hothouse of a play. But that’s where Harmon gets his frictions to bloom.
Admissions, by Joshua Harmon. Directed by Mike Donahue. Scenic design, Caite Hevner; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lights, Amith Chandrashaker; sound design, Roc Lee. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Through Feb. 17 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. $20-$90. 202-332-3300 or studiotheatre.org.