Friday, February 6, 2015 was A Day for many New York City families. It was Admissions Day, the day upon which thousands of moms and dads in all five boroughs found out where (and if) their child got accepted to private school Kindergarten.
Two weeks earlier, on January 26, a new play began running off-Broadway at the Westside Theater. Application Pending tells the tale of one day in the life of a harried admissions director at an Upper East Side private school.
Application Pending was written by Andy Sandberg and Greg Edwards. Neither of the men has a child currently in the NYC system, though the former did attend the all-boys school, Browning (where, presumably, he did not apply himself at the age of five).
And that is the biggest weakness in Application Pending. It's as if an anti-war drama had been written by someone who had never been in battle (or even the military). They can listen to other people's stories, they can speculate about what it might be like, but the result feels inauthentic, and utterly devoid of the sympathy one might develop from truly walking in your characters' shoes.
In fact, the only sympathy in the piece is devoted to the lead character, Christine, played by the charming Christina Bianco, a Kindergarten assistant one day, director of admissions the next. (Her predecessor officially "left to pursue other opportunities," unofficially was presumably fired for running a dog-fighting ring. And a meth lab.)
Christine is woefully unprepared for her job, both the frantically calling parents, and the admissions banquet that she is expected to arrange and attend, thus missing pumpkin-picking with her own son. (It is somehow the school's fault that she was both married to a self-centered jerk who refuses to pick up the slack, and that she chose a nursery school for her child where the nuns constantly mock her for being an "unwed mother." Perhaps she should consider transferring him to the school where she works. Wouldn't that make pick-up and child-care easier?)
The irony is that, when it comes to NYC Kindergarten admissions - both private and public - the stress and anxiety is on the side of the parents, not the admissions people. But Application Pending would rather skewer and stereotype the Yiddish-accented stage-mother, the show-tune singing pair of gay dads, the pushy Southern belle with connections to the Pope - and George Clooney, the overly sensitive Native American Financial Aid Director (pssst: at most schools, admissions and FA are handled by the same person), the non-English speaking janitorial staff, and the Katherine Hepburn sounding Upper East Side matron looking to place her son, adopted from Africa. (The fact that every private school in the city wouldn't be turning handsprings to enroll the child of a family that can pay it's own way and is also 'diverse' - or, as Application Pending amusingly calls it, "heritage rich" - is one of the shows biggest departures from reality.)
At no point does Application Pending dig down deep enough to truly explore the question of why otherwise sensible and wildly successful people temporarily lose their minds when it comes to their offspring's education? What do they expect from it? What does it mean to them? What's so wrong with their local public schools that parents of even modest means believe private school would serve them better, and what are some of the ways in which it can go wrong? (Jokes about 8th graders getting herpes is hardly exclusive to private school, the Upper East Side, or NYC.)
The only parent that gets anything near the sympathy that Christine warrants is one Buddy O'Reilly (also played by Bianco, who assumes all the roles, including the other parents, the principal, and the staff). Buddy calls to explain that his son, Tommy, was accepted the previous year, but that his wife died and he lost his job and there was no money to pay tuition, so they deferred for a year. Might a scholarship be available come next fall? (Sandberg and Edwards said they based a lot of their play on college admissions. It shows. One does not 'defer' Kindergarten. You either accept or turn down their offer. If you'd like to reapply for next year, you need to start the process all over again. Though maybe time works differently in this universe. At the end - spoiler alert - when Tommy is, in fact, given a full scholarship, Christine says she looks forward to seeing him in September... in Kindergarten. What's the boy been doing in the meantime?)
Application Pending is a comedy, and there are a few laugh-worthy lines, but they are laughs of superiority and condescension, not understanding and recognition. Everyone (except the saintly, sad-sack Buddy) deserves mocking. Which would be fine - NYC desperately needs a good satire of the school admission process, which The Best & the Brightest wasn't, either.
But, satire needs to have a point to be effective, beyond look at how hysterical, entitled and grossly over-privileged these people - no, these caricatures - are.
And, on that score, Application Pending doesn't make the grade.
Application Pending runs through April 19 at the Westside Theatre on 407 W. 43rd St.