Monday, November 11, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 222, A Review: "Admissions" (Square One Theatre Company)

By James V. Ruocco

Robert Thomas Halliwell as Charlie Luther Mason.

Janet Rathert as Sherri Rosen-Mason.

Pat Leo as Bill Mason.

Lucy Babbitt as Ginnie Peters.

Ruth Ann Baumgartner as Roberta.

At Square One Theatre Company, these five performers expose the racial pieties, the self-mockery
of the upper middle-class, the pomp and psychosis associated with parenting and the underlying discrimination that robs a privileged white youth of his rightful college placement at a prestigious university in Joshua Harmon's "Admissions," a fascinating work of angst, heated appeal, ethical grandstanding and identifiable vigor that rocks the senses and shakes you up in all the right ways imaginable.


This is a play with insights, intentions, observations and histrionics that hit hard and fast in showstopping, up close, in-your-face style, matched by intelligently-written dialogue, passionate monologues, clever one-liners and well-constructed characterizations.

As penned by Harmon, "Admissions" deals openly with the prickly points, factors and criticisms associated with fact-based acceptance policies at prep schools and elite universities, which, in this play is Yale University. Shortly after the play opens, Hillcrest prep school student Charlie Luther Mason learns that his best friend Perry, whose father is black and mother is white, got accepted into Yale. Charlie, in turn, received a standard deferral letter that not only pissed him off, but forced him to run off and scream loudly and madly in the woods for four hours before facing his overly concerned parents and launching an uncontrollable tirade of hurt, frustration and major disappointment.

Is this right?
Is this wrong?
Was Charlie purposely snubbed by Yale because of the color of his skin and his posh familial privilege?
Is he not entitled to speak his mind and throw his fate into reactionary waters?

What follows sets the tone for this amazing piece of stagecraft that is full of rage, full of dare, full of surprise, full of truth, full of excitement and believe it or not, full of humor. It is one of those works that prompts lots to talk and lots to think about over drinks and dinner at your favorite pub or high-end restaurant, but not before grabbing you by the throat, leaving you emotionally drained or making you want to get up off your seat to shake Charlie's hand and tell everyone else to "Shut up" or "Fuck off."

At Square One Theatre Company, "Admissions" is being staged by Tom Holehan whose directorial credits include "The God Game," "White Guy On A Bus," "The Normal Heart," "A Walk in the Woods" and "Clever Little Lies." Always looking for something new and challenging, Holehan crafts a dramatic, full-bodied work of tremendous power and weight that is sharp, perceptive and provocative as it tackles the playwright's central arguments and questions about white privilege, racial prejudice, access and opportunity, acceptance, favoritism and diversity. Throughout the 90-minute play, which is performed without an intermission, there is a pulse and immediacy that blisters with conviction and purpose. Holehan respects and understands the playwright's character-driven dialogue, his impeccably timed page-by-page scene rota, his sanctimonious power plays, his lengthy monologues and his booming characterizations. He knows what he wants and how to play it. He never once oversteps or jumps out of bounds. He also gives this production of "Admissions" a hypnotic allure and vigor that heightens its importance and drives the message home.

Timing and pacing is mandatory in a work of this nature and Holehan dives in and creates a workable, involved blueprint that is fast, fluid, and meaningful and gets the pulses racing. As "Admissions" evolves, he doesn't waste a single second. He is very precise and detail-oriented when moving his cast of five through the paces of the play's raging storms, domestic pathos, playful humor, hysteria, straightforward panache and calibrated chaos. It's all incredibly timed and positioned with a natural feel and grace that complements and augments the conceit of the piece as envisioned by the playwright. Through Holehan's eyes, it is also a timely and conscious story ripped from today's headlines.

Here, as in other plays he has directed, Holehan has assembled the perfect cast to bring "Admissions" to life. Yes, they are actors. Yes, everything they say and do is rehearsed. Regardless, all five work splendidly together, individually, in pairs, in threes and as a unified ensemble. They connect with the story, their particular character and their role in the progression of the drama. Under Holehan's expert tutelage, they not only inhabit each and every one of their roles with thrilling conviction, but look and act as if they were plucked out of some elite prep school and social environment and brought to Stratford to perform in a play. 

Last seen as Sky the fiancee of Sophie Sheridan in Downtown Cabaret Theatre's captivating  produiction of "Mamma Mia," where he displayed tremendous musicality in the oft-produced musical, Robert Thomas Halliwell, as the frustrated and angered Charlie Luther Mason, takes center stage at Square One Theatre Company and gives one of the most riveting dramatic performances of the 2019 season. As an actor, he's an original, raw talent who tackles his character's tirades, outbursts, mood swings and off-the-cuff madness with amazing realness, passion and emotion that is well timed, well played and well orchestrated. Using the right timing and mindset, he delivers an edgy 17-minute hysterical rant about blatant discrimination that is very much in the moment. From an acting standpoint, it is delivered with spellbinding intensity in every regard and well worthy of a standing ovation or two.

As Charlie's mother Sherri Rosen-Mason, the head of the Admissions Department at Hillcrest, Janet Rathert is a versatile, intelligent, passionate actress who does first-rate work here on every dramatic and emotional level. It's a part she plays impeccably and beautifully and one that is completely in sync with the anguish, frustration and determination set forth by the playwright for how the character is to be portrayed. In the role of Charlie's father Bill Mason, the headmaster at Hillcrest, Pat Leo digs deep into the psyche of his character and brings emotional weight and purpose to every one of his scenes. It's a rich character turn that allows Mason to play a variety of different emotions - concern, amazement, anger, surprise, bafflement - while using Harmon's heated, humorous and potent dialgoue to back up his very polished performance.

Ruth Anne Baumgartner is such a natural fit for the role of Roberta, one wonders which prep school or university Holehan plucked her from to appear in his production. Choate? Yale? Greenwich Academy? St. Lukes? Admittedly, this is her calling. As the devoted, long-time Hillcrest employee working on the develoment of the school's new admissions catalogue with Charlie's mother, she knows the part inside out, frontwards, backwards, hook, line and sinker. She is confident and focused in every one of her scenes which often push her character at wit's end, a frazzled reaction and condition that she plays magnificently. As Perry's proud mother, Ginnie Peters, Lucy Babbitt delivers a solid, centered emotional performance that comes straight from the hip in every possible way. She is at her emotional peak when she cries white privilege and questions why her mixed race husband isn't given the same opportunity for job advancement as someone who is white.

One of the best plays to be staged by Square One Theatre Company this year, Joshua Harmon's "Admissions" is an edgy, timely, persuasive and gripping theatrical piece of real depth that is acted throughout with the right combination of tension, vulnerability and angst by its five-member cast under Tom Holehan's provocative, intense direction. It is a play that reverberates with acidity, heat, heartbreak, hypocrisy and pain. Its arguments and confrontations are fiery and crushing. Its emotional connection to liberal power plays and privileged familial influence is entirely truthful. Its intellectual dynamic gets you angered and excited. And finally, it's a play that delves completely into its tongue-wagging paradox with fueled vigor and imagination using a creative input and theatrical savvy that hits the right chord at every single unadulterated turn.

"Admissions" is being staged at Square One Theatre Company (Stratford Academy, 719 Birdseye St., Stratford, CT), now through November 24.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 375-8778.

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