“All satirists,” wrote Mary McCarthy, “are unfair to their subjects.” And McCarthy, famed for the satiric sting of her own essays and novels, knew whereof she spoke. The truth of her dictum presents a particular problem for playwrights with a knack for satire. Characters whose behavior appalls you in a novel can be kept at a distance: Close the book and you’re done with them. But characters in a play are — literally — in the same room with you. If the playwright is out to paint their behavior as appallingly foolish or vicious, or both, they need some additional traits to allow the audience to put up with them for the hour or two that they spend onstage. They can possess the charm of reveling in their own wicked folly, or an amused self-awareness that invites the audience to share in it with them. They can reveal a helpless vulnerability under their persistence in evil. They might even have redeeming traits that balance the flaws the playwright is targeting, leaving it difficult to detest them wholly. That’s what makes satire so problematic for playwrights: Round out the characters, and you compromise your satiric vision; leave them totally dislikable, and kiss your long run goodbye. (As the Broadway sage George S. Kaufman once said, “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.”)
Joshua Harmon’s Admissions, at Lincoln Center’s Newhouse Theater through May 6, is a comedy almost entirely satiric in intent, pitched in a paradoxical form that only a writer with a strong satirical sense could have conceived: a play about race-consciousness with an ensemble of all-white actors. At Hillcrest, a small but cozily prosperous New Hampshire prep school, the white liberal commitment to diversity is in full flower. After having been lily-white for decades, the school’s ratio of nonwhite students is finally pushing up toward 20 percent, mainly thanks to the staunch principles of Bill Mason (Andrew Garman), its headmaster, and his wife, Sherri Rosen-Mason (Jessica Hecht), its admissions director. The struggle has been fierce: As well as being deeply entrenched in its old traditions, Hillcrest is the kind of small school in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business.
The complicated task of building diversity has worn Sherri to a frazzle. Hecht’s marvelous performance, edgy-voiced and tautly neurasthenic, hovering immaculately just this side of caricature, feels as sharp as the vibrating needle on a seismograph, and we wait for the earthquake that will set it swinging wildly. The tectonic shift doesn’t come from stressed-out Sherri, however, but from her and Bill’s son, Charlie (Ben Edelman), a seventeen-year-old senior at Hillcrest who’s a model student in terms not only of his grades and extracurricular achievements but also of his p.c. rating. Though Charlie’s eminently qualified to edit the school paper, he has submitted without protest to being associate editor so that a female student can take precedence; his best friend, Perry, is the biracial son of one of the school’s English faculty.
Despite all this forbearance, Charlie’s political sensitivities get kicked aside when Perry wins early admission to Yale while Charlie’s placed on the wait list. Suddenly, explosively, diversity’s ethical basis no longer seems to matter to Charlie, and every concession to multiracial reality or gender equality must get chalked up as an injustice worthy of a Fox News diatribe. One might expect the loving parents of a seventeen-year-old throwing such a tantrum to offer some mollifying affection and patient counsel, but Sherri sits strangely silent while Bill, unyielding in his principles, reads his overprivileged son the riot act. (Another anomaly, passed off with a lame bit of comic explanation, is their encouragement of Charlie’s fixation on Yale. You’d never know from this script that America has many other first-rate colleges, both in and out of the Ivy League.)
This pivotal moment underscores the limitations of a satiric approach to drama. As satire, Harmon’s writing is sharp and often very funny, puncturing the all-too-familiar liberal truisms and pulling the earnest, well-meaning characters into comically awkward positions as they fall into linguistic traps and then try to flail their way out. But these moral contortions give Harmon’s people a certain pipe-cleaner quality. They cling to their principles so obsessively — while backtracking from them verbally every time they reach a potentially inflammatory phrase — that they never become fully credible as a set of human beings. It’s a testament to both Hecht and Edelman that they’ve found, under Daniel Aukin’s low-key but detailed direction, many small moments that give their roles breathing room. Garman, whose role offers less space to maneuver, and Sally Murphy, similarly hamstrung as Perry’s mother, come off less successfully, but it’s not the fault of these usually excellent actors that they can’t make bricks without straw. Ann McDonough provides reliable laughs — like Hecht’s, delicately flecked with touches of feeling — in the predictable but wittily turned role of a longtime school staffer who doesn’t buy the diversity jargon and doesn’t hide her feelings about it.
Let me be clear: Harmon’s play has satirical substance and, in its final twists, even stature. And heaven knows we deserve his acrid view of the topic: Diversity is a complex matter to talk about, let alone to achieve. A great many foolish things will be said, and a great many bumbling errors committed, before our society gets anywhere near that distantly perceived goal. So even as we know that the sidelines are crowded with unregenerate souls who would like to see all such attempts at a harmonious, diverse America fail, we have a right, and even a need, to laugh at the clumsy, inept way we move toward that better world. The sardonic laughter Admissions promotes won’t keep us from getting there. But the sense of people as monomaniacs pursuing a single idea — which is the satirist’s sense of humanity — does create a stumbling block, equally for idealists and for those who would mock them. A diverse society can exist only if its people recognize each other as fully human. So a play in which the characters are barely more than ideas that crash into each other to make us laugh stands little chance of helping us on our way — or of being looked back on, once we’ve moved further along, as a harbinger or warning sign that brightened the path.