It is appropriate that the GAMM’s latest offering is called “Admissions,” and it’s next offering is “Assassins,” because this reviewer is simultaneously going to admit and assassinate.
Theater is not competition. It is art, not sport. But I have been reviewing professional theater since 1991, from Westerly to the edge of Chinatown in Boston, and I can now say confidently, without fear of contradiction, that the GAMM Theatre has surpassed Trinity Repertory Co. and any stage you want to offer to see intimate, two-set productions, staged near perfectly, without the clutter or the off-stage drama, the fear of miscasting, bad staging, or the noise.
I would rather watch a new play, an old play, a classic or a controversial epithet at the GAMM than anywhere else in the state, possibly New England.
Its latest brilliant offering, “Admissions,” is a New York award-winner. The play’s title is a double play on the word – principally, the main characters are obsessed with the admission of minority students into fine schools on merit and not color. And, after their world and their moral identity are shattered in a single day, the title slips into the startling, reluctant admission of biases and prejudices they never knew were brimming near the surface until ironically thrown into their faces.
As director Bryn Boice says in her theater notes, she was both “repulsed and delighted” in reading the book of the play before mounting it. It is polarizing. Ultimately, how you view its lessons will depend on your political leanings. Liberal? You might cheer at the beginning and then hiss in the middle. Conservative? The other way around. Does the word, “quota” excite or offend you?
Contemporary playwright Joshua Harmon has taken a subject that is extraordinarily relevant and broad as a news story about powerful institutions with systemic flaws – the Harvard admissions scandal, the bribery college admissions scandal of 2019 – and downsizes it into biting, yet intimate, material for a stellar cast of five to salivate, chew on, devour, savor, and spit out gloriously.
As Boice says, more eloquently than I, “Harmon has successfully captured the conundrum of the white liberal, and the hypocrisy of attempts to invite inclusivity while also trying to scrape resources back to oneself when they seem threatened. His play brilliant exposes this ridiculousness.”
Sherri Rosen-Mason, a white, middle-aged woman, is the admissions director at Hillcrest, a second tier boarding school in New Hampshire. She is obsessed with increasing the percentage of minority students at the formerly lily white institution from the 5.8 percent when she started to beyond the 18 percent she has taken 20 years to reach.
Her liberal husband is the dean of students. Their son Charlie is a top student obsessed with going to Yale. His best friend, who is biracial, also has applied to Yale. On paper, Perry is a notch below Charlie. In genetics, he fits the bill for diversity. Who is selected merely on merit?
When one gets in and the other doesn’t, this family has to surrender privilege and question their personal and professional world view, and, quickly, their principals and individual and collective morality in a single defining moment. Their bubble world has burst.
The kid of color is fine on the team, but he better not take my spot.
The intrapersonal conflicts are delicious. You will discuss the contradictions in this play long after the lights go out. There are dozens of honest laughs and a couple of stunners.
Sherri says early on, “If no one fixated on (race), nothing would ever change.” Later, as Charlie makes two stunning decisions that will turn his parents on their ear, through the angst and epiphany that only an 18-year-old can deliver, he says, “The same people are not going to be spit out into the same slots.”
Still later, Sherri begs the help of her former best friend, after Charlie has dug himself a deep academic hole. That friend Ginnie says, “You may want things to look different, but I’m not sure you want them to be different.”
Deb Martin, as Sherri, is the maypole the four others dance around. Her character must tackle 100 emotions and she never leaves the stage for one of the show’s 100 minutes. She is so elastic at first, so near and almost over the top, I feared she wouldn’t have anywhere to go at the end, but she is capable of creating even more decibels.
Jim O’Brien, a GAMM veteran, brings the right gentle devoted touch to the role of her husband. Karen Carpenter is spot on as Ginnie, who serves as the moral barometer of the play. Wendy Overly, another GAMM vet, nails the comic role of the longest-tenured employee in the history of Hillcrest. Theirs is wonderful ensemble work.
Jacob Osborne, as Charlie, makes an unforgettable debut. He performs at least four 10-to-15 minute monologues re: about-who-is-what-race-and-why-and-who-gets-to-decide-and-who-gets-to-ruin dreams arbitrarily that are written by Harmon flawlessly for a smart teen and delivered pitch perfectly.
Run to see “Admissions” before the GAMM fills its quota of seats.
“Admissions” runs through Feb. 9, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick. www.gammtheatre.org. See photos on page D5.