The hit of the winter on Washington stages has been a comedy about privileged people cheating to get their kids into college, and what do you know? News broke Tuesday in the form of a real scandal and gave the show — Joshua Harmon’s “Admissions,” at Studio Theatre — an infusion of topicality.
Tuesday’s cold facts had the potential to strip Harmon’s comic characters of any sympathy. Outrage greeted profiles of the real-life accused, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.
So disgust plus cynicism was the general public tenor as Studio’s five actors took the stage Wednesday night for the first time since the scandal broke. The play, which viciously satirizes white liberal rhetoric about race, floats a bit above and to the side of the headlines. Dicey confessions are made in the upscale New Hampshire kitchen where the play is set, and the anxious parents — a pair of prep school administrators — eventually stroke their chins and murmur, Who do we know? to pull strings for their kid as he applies to Yale and other top schools.
They would never be so gauche, though, as to pony up five-figure bribes to inflate test scores or lie about him rowing crew. And anyway, their kid is a real achiever, with a conscience.
“I’m trying to be intentional about my climb,” says 18-year-old Charlie, albeit after a near 20-minute rant exploding with white anxiety about racial definitions. That’s the provocative soul of Harmon’s show, which still jabbed startled laughter from the Studio crowd Wednesday night. The comedy, which premiered last year in New York and is now in national and international circulation, works pretty much as it did when it opened in January.
“Admissions” differs from the news in being explicitly about race: Charlie’s mom, a liberal admissions officer, toils to get the diversity rate at her largely white prep school up to 20 percent. Gaming the system personally only comes up late; she scraps her principles and breaks rules when she thinks Charlie has been displaced for college admission by his biracial best friend. Pointedly, “Admissions” is a view from inside a particular tribe, which is what Harmon did in his previous runaway hit at Studio, “Bad Jews.”
But in exposing how advantaged people scam for even more advantages — to which Harmon responded “Duh” in an email from London, where “Admissions” opened this week — the match between art and life is pretty tight. Both, says Studio Theatre dramaturge Lauren Halvorsen, are “dismantling this idea that we live in a meritocracy.”
News can crash onto plays in shocking ways, sometimes making established scripts seem to be about what has just happened. The 1999 mass shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School occurred immediately before a revival here of Peter Shaffer’s 1973 “Equus,” and in that context, watching the play’s disturbed boy violently blind horses was almost more awful than watching the news. (“Columbinus,” the chilling drama drawn from research about the Colorado shooting, is being revived at 1st Stage in two weeks, since this American phenomenon sadly endures.)
Sometimes it goes the other way, with art ahead of events. As the enormity of 9/11 unfolded, it was astonishing to realize that Tony Kushner had already written “Homebody/Kabul,” about the West’s political tensions with Afghanistan, with a premiere locked into the New York Theater Workshop for that December. Lynn Nottage likewise looked prescient when her racially fraught Rust Belt tragedy “Sweat” emerged exactly in step with Donald Trump’s campaign, debuting in 2015 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and moving to Arena Stage in January 2016.
Headlines have intruded on Harmon’s work before. “Bad Jews,” he noted, “opened in London a week after the shooting in Paris at a kosher supermarket, which killed four people.”
“There is a line in the play where Daphna [a fervent young character] says, ‘Now when it’s safest, when it’s easier to be Jewish than it’s ever been in the history of the world . . .’ People laughed. It was no longer true. I had to rewrite the line for that production. It had only been 2½ years since the world premiere of the play, but the world had changed.”
It’s rare to have plays and news as in sync as “Admissions” is now because theaters often plan more than a year ahead of time. “You can’t be a mind reader,” Halvorsen says. “Admissions” has been extended four times; it’s now set to close March 24.
“What does it mean to actually live those values?” Halvorsen says of the liberal pieties Harmon skewers, watching rich folks skating toward an inside track. “The news amplifies that reckoning. I wish we still had talkbacks on the schedule.”