There are moments when you wish the theatre would just be swallowed up and be as if it had never been and the Melbourne Theatre Company’s new offering Admissions is one of them. It stars one of our finest actresses Kat Stewart, it’s directed by one of the abler hands around, Gary Abrahams, no expense has been spared in Jacob Battista’s sumptuous revolving butterfly set and there’s even a performance of great sound and fury, from of one of the Harry Potter marathon boys, William McKenna, who’s been playing Scorpius Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child but it’s all to no avail. This is a turkey of a show and it makes you want to scream.
Stewart plays the head of some American junior college and she’s concerned that the proportion of black or diverse kids enrolled be upped to appropriate levels. She rails at a besieged-looking Deidre Rubenstein who is charged with this burden and who makes unhelpful remarks about the perceptible darkness of skins.
Stewart’s husband, Simon Maiden, a mild-mannered chap, is the head of the school and applauds her efforts. Then the crisis hits when 17-year-old sonny boy fails to get into Yale. The fact that his best friend, black and smart, but certainly not smarter, does causes much conflict on all sides. Stewart gets little joy from the other boy’s mother, her old girlfriend, Heidi Arena.
You might think this would all have the makings of a bearable comedy-drama but you would be wrong. This is a trite, brainless play concocted out of snobbery, liberal pieties of the most superficial kind and endless maddening repetition.
The words Yale and Harvard fall like summer rain as if no one had ever heard the name of any other American university which is especially absurd in the land of the Ivy League where names like Princeton and Columbia, Brown and Dartmouth and MIT, Berkeley and Cornell are familiar even from this distance. But, no, it’s as if the same duo have to be liturgically intoned like the Oxford and Cambridge of some earlier dispensation for busloads of Broadway tourists. There is talk in Joshua Harmon’s profoundly silly play of all the recent presidents having gone to these schools which is all very well if you forget about Trump and Biden and fail to remember Reagan and Carter, Nixon and LBJ. But, God help us, is this a pseudo-academic comedy from a culture intent on showing itself to be brainless? Of course the boy gets it into his head that he should go to community college. Of course his father yells at him that he’ll do this at his own expense, God damn him. There’s a speech that ends in a ‘Sieg Heil’ and a lot of one note handwringing from poor Kat Stewart.
She seems seriously miscast. Stewart is still in her forties but could pass for a decade younger and she succeeds in looking a bit young for the role and it doesn’t help that she constantly projects a kind of shock/horror of mute incomprehension as if she were completely incapable of grasping how facile the demands of her vision actually were. It’s not really her fault when Joshua Harmon’s play is so flaccid, so obvious, such intellectual fatuity and froth.
Could Admissions work? Let’s imagine it was directed by the late Mike Nichols and that Meryl Streep was playing the dean-cum-mother. It’s not impossible to imagine her goggling in bewilderment at the absurdities which the dogmatism of her position were forcing her to take. It’s not impossible to imagine Nichols directing it for the drollery of its vaunted absurdities as a sustained exercise in what fools these mortals be. If everyone in the cast were equipped with irony-tinted glasses – if Margo Martindale were sighing wryly through Rubenstein’s lines, if Bryan Cranston, say, were giving iron and fire to his denunciation of this son and if the son himself were characterised as capable of something more viable than pulling another silly face in the mirror of narcissism (if he were capable of the sort of thing the young James Franco could do) then you might have some play to be considered but there would still be some sense of mouth-to-mouth applied to a lifeless piece of dramatic work.
Admissions is a notably weak bit of playwriting. Its gags are clogs which the cast find it virtually impossible to dance with. It’s also a matter of some wonder that Gary Abrahams should be responsible for this overblown bit of dried-out baloney. Those of us who have watched this director for years have noted his affinity with Des McAnuff, the low spots and the sense of chiaroscuro and darkness with slashes of illumination, Abrahams’ sense of tact, of the grave power and stillness of the single face or of figures interacting could only gape at what had gone wrong for Gary. Nor is it at all rewarding that the set by Jacob Battista allows the maximum breadth to Stewart’s office and then to her living room at her home in which characters climb a staircase to nowhere. There are also stacks of books on outer walls as emblems of nothing in particular. If a production so opulently empty were visited on a Tennessee Williams or an Edward Albee play it would be laughed to scorn as calorie-laden wastefulness. In the case of Admissions it looks like a palpable gesture to persuade the audience that they are in the presence of something significant because it is so obviously expensive.
But Admissions is a play in which everything is vapid and no one seems anything like their true artistic self. It’s ironic that it should coincide with the recording of the Simon Phillips production of As You Like It with Christie Whelan Browne as Rosalind, which was one of the company’s more stylish productions and which was transfigured by Whelan Browne’s performance.
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