Cut Throat, the new play by JB Reich, should be required viewing for every private school admissions director in New York City – not just for its merciless and hilarious mockery of the pre-school application process in this hyper-competitive city but also for its poignant portrayal of parenthood. The fact that we all want the best for our kids is fundamentally the only explanation for why we might submit ourselves to the ritual humiliation of the private school application process, and in New York the competition for seats in elite institutions is cut throat – hence the title of the play. Full disclosure: I have submitted my own children to the process more than once. It’s a one per cent kind of problem but no less intense for those it affects.
Reich takes a wry look at the lunacy sometimes involved in getting your child into the right school, through the eyes of the devoted Upper West Side parents of 3-year-old Charlie. Sarah Sirota and Eric Bryant are convincingly anxious as the well-meaning and loving Amy and Ben, whose relationship is tested by applying to pre-school. The play takes us through the entire process with a wonderful supporting cast of four, playing grandparents, other parents, siblings and even three-year-olds with comic aplomb. The marvelous Susan Cella gets to show off her repertoire of accents in a series of laugh-out-loud roles, including a formidable pre-school director, Ms Kleinhoffer. In the opening scene, she invites the assembled parents to imagine the “tapestry” of their children’s lives. The parents are perched on giant building blocks on an ingenious schoolroom set by Brian Dudkiewicz that transforms throughout to form different environments. The walls are chalkboards adorned with kid’s drawings, and each scene is announced by a projected title written in chalk. As Kleinhoffer expounds on the virtues of her school, our hero-father makes his first admissions process faux pas; he takes out his phone to check his email.
That’s a no-no according to No-cell, a series of how-to books Amy reads in bed. Director Mark Waldrop has fun with the scene by having the authors dressed to match the book covers, reading excerpts from behind the bed. But all Amy’s research may be for nothing as a series of principals divulge what they are really looking for in applicants: “We want to know: Are you rich? Are you connected? Are you known for anything famous? And remember, make no mistake, we are and will be, at all times, judging you, and your child.”
A private school teacher recently told me that the offspring of celebrity chefs are particularly favored in the admissions stakes because dinners at their restaurants command high bids at school fundraising auctions. Cut Throat captures this kind of absurdity but it also takes a look at the fraught nature of families as various relations weigh in.
The play’s real strength however is its comedy. When Amy and Ben try to improve Charlie’s odds of getting in by courting a board member of their preferred school, Susan Cella makes the most of the Upper East Side bourbon-drinking socialite. But perhaps the funniest moment of the play is created by the children; suffice it to say the scene brings the house down not just for what they say – one kid runs a hedge fund – but for a delightful visual gag.
By the end it’s clear where the writer stands on the value of private pre-school; the advice to parents seems to be that they will need a robust sense of humor if they decide to engage in the application process.