Spoiled for choice

Joshua Harmon’s new play about the struggle to get into top American universities could not be more timely

Anne McElvoy

If half of the success in theatre is, as the casting directors say, “just turning up”, the other half must surely be finding that serendipity has landed your drama with a topicality the PRs could only dream off. Offstage, the University of Southern California, an institution so much in vogue with the offspring of America’s gilded families that it has been dubbed the “University of Spoiled Children”, is currently at the centre of a vast bribery scandal. Applicants appear to have been bought places, with the help of an admissions consultant, Rick Singer, who stands accused of inventing athletic specialisms and even doctoring data on candidates’ ethnic background to help secure slots for the famous and well-connected.

The war between pious intentions in higher education and grubbier realities is also at the heart of Admissions, Joshua Harmon’s mordant look at the politics and pieties of university admissions at the Trafalgar Studios, the strangely subterranean small venue in Whitehall, which often stages topical American plays aimed at a trans-Atlantic audience. This time, we’re in a New Hampshire progressive college, where Sherrri (Alex Kingston), an earnest director of admissions, boasts of boosting the numbers of students of colour.

No good deed goes unpunished in a Harmon play — his last (extremely funny) outing was Bad Jews, the saga of a Jewish clan falling out when a valuable heirloom saved by grand-dad from the Nazis comes to light. It was, fittingly, irreverent and challenging to the ideas of what it is “OK” to be humorous about.

The casus belli this time is education, when Sherri’s son Charlie (Ben Edelman) finds out that his treasured place at Yale has been suspended, while his friend Perry, with parents of mixed heritage, has been accepted, possibly on lesser academic achievement. In the manner of Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, the fragility of liberal mores is soon stripped away to reveal darker motivations and self-deceptions.

Of course, you cannot trust a teenager to be consistent even in his prejudices and Charlie moves rapidly from the “it’s so unfair” phase to the “check your white privilege” school of accusation. That leaves Sherri tying herself in knots trying to find a back door into Yale for her boy (though, honestly, if I had to live with perpetually-sullen Charlie, I’d do anything to get him out of the house and that includes perjury).

Admissions is not as well-structured as Bad Jews: it often feels like a first breathless dash of arguments brought to paper and lightly dramatised, rather than honed into more economical dialogue. We get the point a lot earlier about liberal hypocrisies than the shouty diatribes assume — otherwise why would we be sitting through a play that turns on exploring the matter?

Consistently, the memorable characters in Harmon’s ensembles are those who say or think the “wrong” things for the zeitgeist. Margot Leicester is a splendid warhorse for old-fashioned views and limitations as Roberta, Sherri’s doughty colleague, tasked with promoting diversity-friendly images of the college for its glossy brochures, while never quite fathoming what everyone is so worked up about. It makes her a handy porte-parole for the kind of moral blindness that always insists that it “doesn’t notice colour”. But the mixture of misunderstanding, stubbornness and underlying edge as she is asked to produce images of students “more like the world we live in” is telling.

Poor Sherri, having started out regurgitating statistics about the “300 per cent rise in the number of students of colour” finds, like a lot of us, that her certainties about what benefits the many dwindle rapidly when it comes to dealing with her own loyalties and interests. Overall, I’m not too sure what the lesson is, beyond promoting a sharper awareness of double standards that haunt us. But the unfolding admissions saga in the US is a reminder that the ivory towers can tarnish every bit as easily as commerce or government.

TV drama has had a bit of a golden age, from durable American series such as The Good Wife and Breaking Bad to picaresque Deutschland 83, with its glitzier follow-up, Deutschland 86 and all those sweaty Sunday-night dramas from Broadchurch to Bodyguard to keep us away from our Fitbits. New comedy has been more hit-and-miss, which is why the return of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s scabrous Fleabag for a second series is a welcome addition to BBC’s offer. At the end of the first run, we left Fleabag, played by Waller-Bridge herself, by turns charming, sexy, chaotic and utterly emotionally dysfunctional. She’s back, struggling with a dad in denial about — well, everything really — plus a disingenuous nightmare of a stepmother played by the now Oscar-bearing genius Olivia Colman.

Waller-Bridge’s character is a pointed evocation of the mores of the young millennial generation — sexually voracious but hankering to “fill the void” as she informs her dry-voiced therapist (Fiona Shaw). Like Edie Falco’s empathetic, desperate Jackie in HBO’s Nurse Jackie, we watch the characters on the verge of breakdown, in part to feel sympathy, but also with a residual feeling of “thank God it’s not just me” about their quirks, weaknesses and compulsions.

The high point of series 2 so far has been Fleabag’s flirtation with an edgy priest (Andrew Scott), trying to save his celibacy from her transgressive attentions. “You know what you’re going to do,” raps Shaw, “Everyone always does.” Really classy drama on screen means making something of the tiny details. Waller-Bridge’s character is, like her creator, a lapsed Catholic. When she sits in the church vestry, eyeing up Scott and taking a Proustian sniff of a Bible when his back is turned, we see desire and confusion, but also glimpse the desire to make a fractured past whole again. It’s so funny, it hurts.

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