SALT LAKE CITY — Getting into college is no easy task. High school seniors who want to go on to the next level are expected to have impressive resumes, grades, and test scores. Standardized tests — the most famous being the SAT — can play a huge part in a student’s higher education. Pioneer Theatre Company’s latest production, In, a world premiere from playwright Bess Wohl, explores the difficulties surrounding one particular student’s application to one of the world’s most prestigious universities.
In is the story of Sara (Julie Jesneck) a Harvard grad who, seven years out of college, longs to be a novelist but is tutoring high school seniors to pay the bills. Her latest assignment brings her to the airy suburban Connecticut home of Pammie Anders (Alexandra Neil), a wealthy, art collecting, helicopter mom who is willing to go to great lengths to assure that her son Jordy (Jason Ralph) is admitted to his father’s alma mater, Harvard. Sara begins coaching Jordy, and the two strike up an unlikely friendship.
It’s easy to relate to Jesneck’s Sara; she is likably and believably awkward in her interactions with Jordy. I found myself both wanting to hug her and strangle her simultaneously. Leaving the theatre, I felt a strange pity for Sara; strange because it wasn’t really pity but understanding. Sara is relatable because she’s an ordinary woman that life simply sneaks up on. Perhaps she is naïve, blind and trusting; but if she is, it’s in a way we all are. Most of us expect the best in the people we meet and interact with on a daily basis; and most of us, in our everyday lives, aren’t disappointed. Sara is.
As Pammie, Alexandra Neil is breezily coy and manipulative; she is clearly a woman who is used to getting what she wants. Neil is fantastic at saying one thing and meaning another; her Pammie consistently builds up a facade of cheery cluelessness that deflects from the machinations happening beneath. I was genuinely afraid of her and her $3000 leather boots. She has her own set of troubles outside of her crusade to see her son in Harvard crimson, but she would deny them in a tone resonant of “We’ll see you at the Club later.” She’s not a person you want to challenge or cross, however accidentally. Neil’s voice is a particularly effective weapon in her arsenal; her words are gilded, but with poison lurking beneath.
Jason Ralph’s Jordy tends to steal nearly every scene he’s in. Ralph is very convincing as a 17-year-old who’d rather be playing lacrosse or enjoying the “benefits” of his girlfriend rather than studying to retake the SAT. He’s the kind of guy I both hated and adored in high school; confident, cute, popular. Dyslexia and ADHD both trouble his schoolwork (according to his mother, anyway), yet he wants to go to Harvard because his dad did. As a character, he is both attractive and frustrating; I wanted him to succeed, yes; but I also longed to give him a good swift kick. Presented with any number of opportunities and chances, Jordy seems to have his life set to cruise control. Ralph manages to make him vulnerable despite the mountains of negatives piled against him; in one of his more moving moments on stage, Jordy drafts his application essay by listing all of the ways in which he is insignificant and mediocre. I wanted to hate him, but I couldn’t make myself do it. Perhaps that’s part of who Jordy is; like his mother, he wins people over.
All three characters struck me as very real; I can easily imagine meeting them on the street or on campus; in fact, I’m pretty sure I already have. The play is nicely grounded in reality; in fact, some of the crazier twists the plot takes are of the “truth is stranger than fiction” variety (Pammie actually owns an original Picasso, for starts). I believed nearly all of the situations could easily be true experiences, and that helped sell me on the story.
Playwright Wohl’s dialogue is crisp and authentic, infused with a strong sense of humor, which is handled deftly by director Charles Morey and his talented cast. She presents intriguing questions, some of them pretty straight up, about current social and economic divisions in the United States and how those divisions are reflected, unfortunately, in our lopsided educational system. For generations, the wealthy and privileged have managed to stay on top — Jordy, as a rich, white, male athlete applying for entrance to a major bastion if academia is nearly the perfect embodiment of that. He knows it’s hard to get into the school he wants, but he reasons that the work will be worth it because of the four years of solid partying he’ll get in college.
The play is not preachy; rather, it presents Sara’s experience with the Anders family as a window into a world our celebrity and wealth-obsessed society really doesn’t understand. Wohl is not satisfied with leaning on appearances; she wants to examine what goes on beneath. Jordy has been raised to expect certain things, among them his top-tier education; it’s treated as both a privilege and an expectation. Harvard is the only option for him; there is no mention of his second or third choices. In one scene he mentions the possibility of attending Vassar, and is instantly ridiculed by Pammie. It may seem unrealistic for him to only apply to one school, but I believed it; I actually think it happens more often than we realize.
The play has a lot of strengths, as does the production. It is a bit long, clocking in at 2 hours and 15 minutes without the intermission. But the questions asked are fascinating ones, and the characters are as enthralling as they are frustrating; that makes them, in my estimation, truly human.