Not wanting to spoil too many details of Joshua Harmon’s Admissions before it starts previews on February 15, I began my conversation with Daniel Aukin, the production’s director, by asking about his first collaboration with the playwright: Bad Jews. “After reading the first three pages of that script,” Aukin said, “I thought: this would really have to go sideways for me not to want to direct it. I was immediately conscious of Josh’s fully formed voice – it was sad and hilarious.”
Aukin did direct the drama, in 2012, off-off-Broadway, and, in 2013, off-Broadway, and it went on to become one of the most produced plays in the United States during the 2014-15 season. Why did it catch on? “I almost look at success in an opposite way: I’ve worked on many plays that I love that haven’t caught on. It’s partly a matter of chance or luck. At the same time, Bad Jews is a terrific play that deals with the legacy of history.”
Aukin said that with both Bad Jews and Admissions (Harmon’s intervening work, Significant Other, was done off-Broadway in 2015 and on Broadway in 2017) display Harmon’s “brilliance at posing seemingly irreconcilable points of view. One moment you can be sympathetic to one viewpoint and a page-and-a-half later you can be sympathetic to something diametrically opposite. Josh executes the dance around a central problem with real bravura.”
With Admissions, the story takes place at a well-regarded New England prep school. Privileged parents are obsessed with the demographic make-up of the school as well as with their children being admitted to top Ivy League universities — and the results are often highly comedic. Where does that fixation come from?
“Parents may not be fully conscious,” Aukin explained, “of all the forces driving them in this obsession. This play looks at some of those dynamics. About class and privilege and opportunity.”
In terms of his own opportunities, Aukin appeared well-placed by upbringing for a life in the professional theater. He grew up in London with an American mother who is a theater director (Nancy Meckler) and a British father who is a producer of theater, film, and TV (David Aukin). But, he said, “as a child I wasn’t super-conscious of any interest in being a director.” The urge began when he was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. “The school didn’t have a theater department, just a vibrant student-run theater organization. But as soon as I found myself in a place where my parents couldn’t see what I was doing, I started directing immediately. In retrospect, I needed some distance from my parents in order to do the same thing that they did.”
Aukin, who directed Amy Herzog’s play 4000 Miles, for LCT3, in 2011, and again, at LCT’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, in 2012, talked about Admissions with regard to the current social and political moment. “The play feels pulled from the giant shifts and debates that have been especially explosive in our culture for the past 18 months or two years.” He added: “It’s interesting to me that Josh began writing the play four or five years ago, before those debates got traction in popular culture. It might have been much more challenging to write this play during the past year -- it might have been too paralyzing to address this subject matter with all the change that had happened. In some ways, Josh may have backed into the current debates. Whatever his timing or process, the result is very powerful.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.