A Play Dissected White Privilege in Education. Then the College Admissions Scandal Broke.
Jeremy Wechsler was on his way to rehearsal one morning in March when his phone started, and then wouldn’t stop, going off.
The artistic director of Chicago’s Theater Wit was at the helm of “Admissions,” a wry glimpse at privilege and educational opportunity through the eyes of a white teenager — deferred from his dream school — and his parents, officials focused on diversifying their East Coast boarding school. The play was set to begin performances in just over a week.
As Mr. Wechsler made his way to the theater, he got one text after another — “Have you seen this?” — with links to that morning’s unfolding news: Federal prosecutors had charged 50 parents, coaches and test administrators in a wide-reaching college admissions scheme, a scandal implicating wealthy families who, according to the Justice Department, had cheated, bribed and photoshopped their children’s way into elite universities.
“Admissions,” which was written by Joshua Harmon and opened Off Broadway exactly a year before the scandal broke, doesn’t have much to say on bribery (or cropping a student’s face onto a water polo player’s body, for that matter). But its overarching themes — how far parents will go to secure opportunities for their children, and the systemic advantages some demographic groups wield over others — reverberated through the emerging details of the scandal.
“Of course everyone was like, ‘You’re so lucky; your show’s going to do amazing,’” Mr. Wechsler said.
And they weren’t necessarily wrong: The Chicago production will close Sunday after three extensions, which added 14 weeks to the unusually successful run for the theater. The play is also picking up speed across the country, with 13 other productions being licensed through 2020. Like Mr. Harmon’s 2013 “Bad Jews,” “Admissions” is on track to be one of the most-produced plays at regional theaters in the next year.
But if there is a correlation between the scandal buzz and the new show’s buzz, it’s a murky one. “Admissions” had already made its way to several regional theaters, including a Washington, D.C., production that saw four extensions, before anyone was charged in the investigation.
Not to mention: The idea of theatergoers throwing down their newspapers and sprinting to the box office? Not entirely plausible.
Paul Daigneault programmed the play as part of SpeakEasy Stage Company’s 2019-20 season last summer, nearly a year before the news broke. SpeakEasy, which is based in Boston, targets shows that can generate cultural conversation, he said, and if anything, the scandal will make the conversation resonate even more. (SpeakEasy’s production begins performances in October.)
“The events of the play do not perfectly coincide or mirror the effects of the college admissions scandal,” said Mr. Daigneault, the theater’s artistic director. “White privilege and the idea of America hiding behind its liberalism until the mirror is turned around and facing you is what makes it even more relevant.”
Theater Wit’s ticket sales didn’t explode when the admissions scandal broke. Rather, it was when previews began, Mr. Wechsler said, that word-of-mouth referrals “went through the roof.”
“I would sit in the lobby, and I would listen to people as they were coming out and they would be on their phones, literally calling people and saying, ‘You’ve got to come see this show,’” he said.
Post-show conversations that usually lasted 20 minutes were running twice as long. One white woman emailed Mr. Wechsler a letter recounting and renouncing her long-held resentment of colleagues of color for what she saw as their unfair advancement.
Mr. Harmon declined to comment about the way “Admissions” reverberates with recent events. And the play’s tricky, satirical tone — and its array of seemingly well-meaning liberal characters — already made it one to argue about. They include Charlie, a high school senior who embarks on a 17-minute diatribe on who really counts as a person of color, and his mother, Sherri, who ditches her diversity-oriented priorities when her own child’s success is at stake.
The 26-year-old actor Ben Edelman played Charlie at Lincoln Center as well as in a London run that concludes Saturday. In a recent interview, he compared the admissions scandal to a fun house mirror: a heightened version of the problems in education that typically manifest in less egregious ways.
“One of the things that’s kind of exciting about the play is how it doesn’t reduce the conversation,” Mr. Edelman said. “It complicates the conversation. It’s not black and white. It’s dealing with the shades of gray.”
As previews in Chicago began, the nature of the scandal was one of Mr. Wechsler’s biggest concerns. Would the conversation about the play be hijacked by a discussion of behavior that was easy to condemn?
“A lot of parents who come to the play are like, you have to do whatever you can to help your kids,” he said. “Then followed two beats later like, ‘Not like those parents.’”
But for some, the scandal added a realistic framework to “Admissions.” Kate Phillippo, a professor of cultural and educational policy studies at Loyola University Chicago who spoke on a post-show panel in May, said the admissions scheme shaped her understanding of how desperate parents can be to ensure their children get a distinguished education.
“We’re asking kids to think about equity and social justice — or at least I hope we are — and we’re also asking them to compete,” Dr. Phillippo said. “And those two things in a lot of ways are opposed to one another. You want equity, but you also want to get ahead of other people. And to some degree, everybody can’t have both of those things.”
Lisa Levy, a parent and educator in Chicago who saw the play in March, said that the admissions scandal didn’t affect her perception of the show, but that the play did lead her to reflect on how she handled her own children’s college application process.
“With or without the scandal,” Ms. Levy said, “I thought it was a really relevant play to the times.”