Entertainment » Celebrities

The 'Who' and the 'What' :: Maureen Keiller on SpeakEasy's Production of 'Admissions'

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Nov 4, 2019
Maureen Keiller
Maureen Keiller   

Joshua Harmon has gleefully tackled controversial — if not downright toxic — subject matter in plays like "Bad Jews" and "Significant Other," but the SpeakEasy Stage Company's current production of Harmon's 208 opus "Admissions" has landed at an extraordinary moment: Even as the country continues to be roiled by racist currents both covert and blatant, a recent real life scandal around power and privilege — and, of course, money — has raised questions about the integrity of admissions processes at some of the nation's most prestigious institutions of higher learning.

An even deeper background for the play is a long running, and recently resolved, lawsuit that alleged that Harvard University was denying qualified students based on race.

Elite schooling is a concern for high-flying people who invest enormous resources in their children's education, convinced that a carefully burnished pedagogical pedigree is crucial to any chance of future accomplishment, including good wages and happiness. For people long shut out of the American dream due to superficial issues such as skin color (or gender identity or sexual orientation, for that matter), progressive admissions policy really do matter. But everything deemed "elite" is by definition a limited resource and therefore the matter of who is granted access and who is rejected makes for high-stakes in a zero-sum game. Resentments tend to flourish under such conditions.

With "Admissions," Harmon has crafted an ingeniously sly premise: Sherri, the main character (played in this production by Maureen Keiller), is the director of admissions at a prestigious prep school. She and her family — including husband Bill (Michael Kaye), who works at the same school, and their son, Charlie (Nathan Malin), who is getting ready for college and hoping to secure a place at Yale — are white, and that lends them certain privileges and forms of access. But could it be true, as critics of progressive admissions policies charge, that being white also has come to mean automatically losing points in some areas?

The plot is designed to provoke discussion around just this controversy. Not only is Sherri a white professional woman whose job it is to expand the diversity of the student body at the school where she works, she's also the mother of a young man whose skin color should not affect his chances at getting into the elite university of his choice... and yet, space is limited; a quota system might indeed push people like Charlie to the side. Meantime, Charlie's biracial best friend, Perry — whose father, being African-American, has felt a sense of opportunities denied him because of his racial heritage — is also vying for a place at Yale. Will the competitive nature of admissions to Ivy League schools drive a wedge between the boys — not to mention between Sherri and Perry's mother, Ginnie (Marianna Bassham), who have long been friends?

Harmon chooses to focus his theme with laser-like precision on the white characters of the story. We never see Perry or his father — but we do meet Ginnie. We also meet Roberta (Cheryl McMahon), a colleague of Sherri's whose incomprehension around racial sensitivities is profound, and almost comical. But who's the more deserving butt of the play's jokes? Roberta, who is so far from woke that an alarm clock wouldn't rouse her to any greater understanding, or the play's cadre of white, privileged, and yet also deeply conflicted progressives, who work with great self-consciousness (and not a little self-regard) to right the many wrongs they see persisting in their small corner of the world?

Where Harmon fearlessly leads — as much with humor as with shock — director Paul Daigneault and his cast follow. EDGE got a glimpse into the production in a recent chat with the three-time Elliot Norton Award-winning Maureen Keiller, who opened up about her character, her process, and the way the play fits into — and challenges — the times in which we live.


Cheryl McMahon and Maureen Keiller in in SpeakEasy Stage Company's production of 'Admissions'  (Source:Maggie Hall Photography)

EDGE: You've been in SpeakEasy Stage Company productions many times before, with roles in "The Little Dog Laughed," "The Women," "Nine," "The Whale," and, last year, "Between Riverside and Crazy." Do you have the sort of relationship with SpeakEasy that they will phone you up and say, "We're producing a play you would be perfect for" and invite you to come on board?

Maureen Keiller: You know something, this is the first time I was outright offered a role with SpeakEasy. It was very flattering — I love working there. Last year, with "Between Riverside and Crazy," Paul [Daigneault] had emailed me. He said, 'There's a role in this play that you'd be great for, but I'm not directing so you'd still have to audition. But I'd love to have you come in." So I know that he was sort of behind me on that one... which was nice.

[For this play], he just offered me this role, which was wonderful. I started to read it and I thought to myself, "This play is so good!" I wrote him back after, like, ten pages and said, "This play is great! Wouldn't it be great to work together again?" Then I said, "Wait — are you offering this to me?" And he said, "Uh, yeah." That was really nice! And when I finished [reading it] I just knew I would have to do this and felt so lucky that I had gotten the offer.

EDGE: Joshua Harmon has written several really cutting, funny plays that address controversial issues. How familiar were you with his work beforehand?

Maureen Keiller: Yes — SpeakEasy had done "Bad Jews," and they also did "Significant Other," and I knew people who were involved with those productions, so yeah — I knew he was an edgy guy and he liked to push buttons. That's one thing I really love about this play. I was laughing, and then I'd be, "Ooh, should I be laughing at this? This is kinda crazy!"

[Laughter]

Maureen Keiller: So, yeah, I think this another one of his 'hot topic' plays that is going to have people talking.

EDGE: Harmon makes a specialty of that — finding a balance between making you laugh and making you cringe.

Maureen Keiller: Uh huh, and I love that kind of theater! I like when you leave the theater and you can't get the play out of your head. "Bad Jews" and "Significant Other" did that for me — I just couldn't get it out of my brain. I think that this play is even more so.

EDGE: "Admissions" was first produced in 2018, so it predates the admissions scandal that a number of people got swept up in recently, including actress Felicity Huffman — but this seems like one of those hot-button issues that is constantly coming back onto the cultural radar in one form or another. Were there many discussions with director Paul Daigneault, or among the cast, about the admissions scandals?

Maureen Keiller: Oh yeah, it definitely came up. It's not exactly the same kind of issue, but it does come up in the play. He did write it before this all happened, [and yet] it's so timely! I think that we got on board at a really good time, because it's so fresh in people's minds.

EDGE: I think "Admissions" might not have pre-dated a just-resolved suit against Harvard that alleged that Asian students were, in effect, being discriminated against by policies that seek to bring more diversity to the school.

Maureen Keiller: There's so much in this play that is happening right now. I got cast in the summertime, and I get the New York Times, so I just kept finding all these articles about college admissions and race and I just kept saving these articles to bring in when we started rehearsing, because it's everywhere.

The lawsuit [against Harvard] was pretty interesting, and that does get mentioned in a way, that Asian students get put in a pile because there's a quota, and "too many" Asians are applying to Harvard. And [the claim is] that there is no discrimination, but... of course there is, you know?


Nathan Malin, Michael Kaye, and Maureen Keiller in in SpeakEasy Stage Company's production of 'Admissions'  (Source:Maggie Hall Photography)

EDGE: I keep thinking that the title of the play is something of a pun — in the sense that if people on every side of this issue really want to examine it honestly, they might have to make some admissions about themselves and their views that they would find uncomfortable.

Maureen Keiller: Absolutely. I think that's very deliberate, the title. It's just so interesting — the arc of the characters in the play, and what they are forced to admit about themselves. It's fascinating, because there's no right or wrong in a lot of what these people think and say — I mean, a lot of it is right, and a lot of it is very wrong. It really does make you think about your own values. Like, people want to change the world, right? They want things to change, but then they have to sacrifice something — they have to personally sacrifice something to do it. That's one thing that I love about this play, that the characters are trying to do good in the world but when it affects them personally they're willing to play with their own... not morals, so much, but just have to face their own hypocrisy.

EDGE: Maybe set aside some their own highest ideals.

Maureen Keiller: Exactly.

EDGE: Your character, Sherri, is right in the center of all of that because she is a director of admissions for an elite prep school, and her son Charlie has just had his application to Yale deferred. What an irresistible role — so many moral and dramatic complexities.

Maureen Keiller: One hundred percent, and Charlie's best friend does get into Yale — and his best friend is biracial and has the "boxes to check" that Charlie does not. It's something that Sherri has been fighting for in trying to get her school to be more diverse, but when it comes to her own son she is willing to compromise that.

EDGE: Did cutting out those articles about race and admissions play into your interpretation of Sherri in terms of her profession, and the way her professionalism runs up against her personal situation?

Maureen Keiller: Oh, a hundred percent! And I've been kind of glued to the whole scandal going on with Felicity Huffman and Laurie Loughlin because white privilege really is [a thing], and if you have the money [doors will open for you].

What really got me with those scandals was what it did to their kids. They thought they were helping their children, and... at least with Felicity Huffman, her daughter is apparently a very talented actor, and now she's forever going to be branded with this whole scandal, something she has nothing to do with. Imagine your parents not trusting your brain enough! They don't think you're smart enough to get in. Imagine finding that out, that your own parents don't believe in you and think they have to use their money in order to secure a position for you. It's just awful.

That happens with Charlie, too; what he goes through is painful. That's something I was thinking a lot about when preparing for this role.

EDGE: Charlie has an extremely unexpected response to this situation.

Maureen Keiller: Absolutely! If comes directly from Sherri saying things to him like, "Be the change you want to see in the world," and trying to do good in the world — and when he does, that's not what she wants for him.

EDGE: I don't know if you have college age kids of your own, or nieces and nephews who might be that age, but in Charlie's thinking process and attitudes do you see something similar to young people you might know?

Maureen Keiller: I myself do not have children, but I have a niece who I am very, very close to who is going to college, and somewhat what concerns her now — which is a very big thing — is just the state of the world and whether it's going to be here in another twenty years. She tries to make the change in her own college life to try to being attention to that. She wants to be a writer, and a lot of what she does focus on is trying to make the world a better place and trying to save the planet.

EDGE: Charlie is played Nathan Malin. What's your chemistry with him like? Have you defined a maternal vibe between the two of you that you bring to the production?

Maureen Keiller: I have to say that he is amazing. He is an amazing actor! He came in as a student at BU, where the man playing my husband, Michael Keys, is one of his teachers. He came in completely off-book, completely ready, and he really is making us all step up our game, which is astonishing for a kid his age. He is lovely to be around; he's sweet, and what he has to say is so smart. But he is also smart enough to know not to overstep — do you know what I mean? He's such a joy to be with.

The whole cast is incredible! I've worked with Arianna, and I've worked with Cheryl McMahon before, but the others I have not worked with — though I've admired Michael for quite some time. It's lovely to be in the room with all of them, but Nathan — his thoughts on that character are so mature and dead-on. He's great!

I read with him at the audition. We read a lot of Charlie's scenes — but as soon as he walked out that door, Paul and I were, like, "Oh my god!"

[Laughter]


Marianne Bassham in SpeakEasy Stage Company's production of 'Admissions'  (Source:Maggie Hall Photography)

Maureen Keiller: Like, we knew! He also looks like he could be our kid. And he reminds me a little of my nephew — he looks a lot like my nephew — so there is something that I just feel very loving toward him.

I think there's a danger in this play of being really tough and not giving any warmth to these characters. I think that could be a trap. And I think even in a flawed family there's real love and affection, and it's very easy to show that with him.

EDGE Nathan has got some epic, passionate monologues in the play — they just seem to go on for pages! As someone who is sharing the stage with him during those passages, what's your approach to remain an active part of the scene but also let the attention linger on Charlie?

Maureen Keiller: All you have to do is listen to what he is saying, and you can't help staying engaged. He's got that whole thing where he says, "Who gets to decide who's a person of color?" When he's saying this kind of stuff you can't help but react to it, because a lot of his statements are valid. And a lot of them are not! So, when the scary borderline racist stuff comes out, you can't help but react to that.

There's a lot of pauses when it's silence, and you have to figure out reasons why you are not interrupting him. You just have to put it in your own brain, As an actor, you have to give yourself reasons to keep listening.

EDGE You mentioned Marianna Bassham and Cheryl McMahon, and they really, maybe more so than Charlie and Bill, play the opposite forces that Sherri is caught between. You have Roberta, who is the old guard at the school and who is not even aware of her own racism; she thinks she's color blind, but really she's just blind.

[Laughter]

Maureen Keiller: And Cheryl is amazing! She's so funny, and she's so real. Roberta might be one of the more honest people in the play, too. She says she doesn't see color, but of course she sees color!

EDGE: And then there's Sherri's friendship with Perry's mother, Ginnie, who has her own take on how issues around race impact her son and his future prospects.

Maureen Keiller: Yeah, I think that both of those characters are what I have to push against.

EDGE: Do you tweak Sherri — how she presents, what she says - in different ways for your scenes with those two characters?

Maureen Keiller: Well, yeah. With Marianna's character Ginnie, there's a real love and friendship there; what I love about that, too, is that they never really tell the truth to each other. Ginnie has this long-standing resentment of Sherri and Bill, because they have advanced in a way that her own husband has not been able to. But she's always saying, "I'm so proud of you, I love what you've done for the school! You've really made changes!" And then, later, she says, "Polar ice caps melt faster than the changes you have made in this school."

EDGE: That might not really be a criticism, the way the ice caps are melting!

[Laughter]

Maureen Keiller: All Ginnie is doing is congratulating Sherri on things that she doesn't even really believe in. You know what I mean? So they have this friendship that's really not based on truth. So as soon as Charlie says... well, he doesn't even really say it, but Ginnie picks up from what he says that, "Oh, you really think the only reason Perry got into Yale is because he had these boxes to check?" And of course Sheri says, "Well, that's what I fight for! That's what I want! I hope he checks the boxes!"

EDGE: There's also a terrific dynamic between Sherri and her husband, Bill, played by Michael Kaye, whose view of the situation — and of Charlie's reactions — is surprising, very different to Sherri's, and yet it also seems quite realistic.

Maureen Keiller: The Sherri and Bill dynamic is very interesting to me. I'm still wrapping my head around that one.

EDGE: What discussions might you and Michael Kaye have had around the way Sherri and Bill respond to the situation and the ways in which it affects their marriage?

Maureen Keiller: We're now in a place in the process where we're really breaking down the scenes into really small beats to figure out the direction it's going. We do talk in depth about all of the characters and all of the scenes. The stuff with Charlie and Bill is very harsh at times. It's interesting to me that Sherri calls Charlie "my son" at least three times. Not "our son," but "my son." So there's definitely a dynamic of her being very protective of Charlie, and wanting the best for him.

EDGE: Race in America is one of a handful of explosively charged subjects that just never seems to get any better — and in fact, these hot button issues seem to be driving Americans further and further apart all the time. Do you see this play as offering any possible solution, or even clarity, around these issues?

Maureen Keiller: I think what it's offering is a chance for people to really look into themselves and acknowledge that. It's so complicated. It's like that song in "Avenue Q" — "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist." You know that song?

[Laughter]

EDGE: Yes. Right!

Maureen Keiller: It's a little like that. People don't think they have issues with race until something comes up that makes them go, "Oh! But do I [have issues around race]?" You want to think of yourself as being a liberal and progressive, but there's that whole thing that you might not even be aware that you have feelings you need to sift through. Race is such a complicated thing. I think that this play is definitely going to make people talk, because there are a lot of complicated issues in it. We have discussions a lot about, "I bet there will be a reaction to this, and what will that reaction be?" It'll either be, "Yeah! That's right!" Or, "Oh my gosh, how could you say that?" I mean, in the same room we'll probably have both of those reactions. This play, more than almost any play I've ever done, I'm so excited to see the reason and to have the talkbacks after and see what people have to say. Because we honestly don't know which say it will go. There's definitely going to be some great discussions.


SpeakEasy Stage Company's production of "Admissions" plays through Nov. 30 at the Boston Center for the Arts. For tickets and more information, please go to https://www.speakeasystage.com


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


Comments

Add New Comment

Comments on Facebook