Richard Hoehler and Kathryn Kates in INADMISSIBLE. Photo by Jim Baldassare.
BOTTOM LINE: A funny, juicy, cynical look at university professors, and how they decide who's in and who's out at elite graduate schools.
Having worked as a private tutor for many families well-off enough to hire a private tutor, I know quite a bit about the anxiety that surrounds “the college process,” especially when elite institutions are involved. I also know a fair amount about being a candidate for admission to graduate programs (I myself went to grad school…twice). And I’m rather familiar with the world of theatre, where actors, writers and directors are obliged to promote themselves constantly and compete with their colleagues at every turn. So when I sat down to watch Inadmissible, D.B. Gilles’ new comedy about how admissions decisions are made at graduate theatre schools, I was already hooked, knowing that I was going to see a play that spoke to me on multiple levels.
The pun of the title, suggesting something criminal, is entirely appropriate; the characters are morally compromised and shady from the beginning, and they don’t get any nicer by the end. Elaine Callaway (Kathryn Kates), the theatre department chairperson, and her colleague, professor Martin Hemmings (Richard Hoehler), are looking forward to finalizing their decisions about who to admit to the program for the upcoming year, when they find out that the third member of the committee is ill, too ill to join them. They have to call in a substitute, and decide, after some debate, on Joanna (Charise Greene), who was once a student in the program and is now an adjunct instructor. Elaine, a confident woman in a business suit who’s somewhat distracted by her daughter’s upcoming wedding, wants Joanna because she expects her to have strong opinions (and also because she can get her to do it for free), while Martin, whose cynicism is thicker than pea soup, argues against her for the same reason. However, once Joanna arrives, he wastes no time winning her to his side (while Elaine is out of the office, of course). It seems Martin and Elaine are having a disagreement about which patently unqualified candidate to accept—he wants the talentless daughter of a powerful Hollywood agent, and she wants the psychotic son of an Internet billionaire. Joanna is disturbed: she can’t believe either of these applicants would be admitted to the program, especially when there’s a candidate being ignored whose writing has blown her away. Unfortunately, this brilliant writer didn’t go to the “right” undergraduate institution. Even in the arts, it seems, money and influence trump talent.
Further complications include Elaine’s insistence on “diversity” in the program at the same time as she unromantically shakes down applicants’ parents for money; Martin’s ambition to replace Elaine as department chair; and Joanna’s own desire for a full-time position. Every time you think a character might be showing some concern for fairness or talent, they betray that impulse by giving in to self-interest or external pressure. Yet no one is portrayed as a villain or a monster; both women are smart and likeable, even when they choose business over art, and even Martin, who from beginning to end is as jaded as they come, garners sympathy: he’s a failed actor who fears being a failed academic, and is willing to do nearly anything to avoid failing again. Hoehler, the actor who plays Martin, is the strongest member of the three-person cast, hitting the right notes of narcissism and self-pity.
Inadmissible’s chief weakness is that there is too much of it. The world of university admissions is a juicy topic all by itself, as is the drama of the theatre community—auditioning, submitting, networking… Combining the two muddies the waters somewhat. I’m not sure anyone cares deeply about the inner workings of graduate theatre programs except people who have been accepted to them, or rejected by them, or employed by them. I’m willing to bet that a fair number of people in the house the night I saw the show belonged to one or more of those categories. Inadmissible might make more sense as a longer piece, which would allow people who are unfamiliar with its very specific setting more time to get to know it, or, on the other hand, as a short play, just giving us a taste of its dark, prickly milieu without wearing out its welcome. However, in this incarnation, it gives both artists and academics something to chuckle at…or recoil from.
(Inadmissible plays at Canal Park Playhouse, 508 Canal Street between Greenwich and West Streets, through February 18th. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30pm. Tickets are $18 and are available at ovationtix.com or by calling 866.811.4111.)