'Open Admissions': the play - not the policy - gets a high grade

Open Admissions Play by Shirley Lauro. Directed by Elinor Renfield.

''Open Admissions,'' at the Music Box, merits more than just an A for relevance. Shirley Lauro has written a thoughtful, sometimes comic, and ultimately moving drama about an inner-city black youth's collision with a well-meaning educational policy that can have dire consequences. A playbill insert offers the following background:

''Open admissions is a policy that was inaugurated in the late 1960s at many public, urban colleges and universities throughout the United States. The policy grants college entrance to all city high school graduates. At present, this policy has been abandoned by some institutions and retained by many others with varying degrees of success and failure.''

At the makeshift New York City college where Ginny Carlsen (Marilyn Rockafellow) teaches, the results of the policy are less than impressive. In the case of Calvin Jefferson (Calvin Levels), the encounter proves disastrous. It is not merely that teacher Carlsen's frantic schedule and crowded classes leave her insufficient time or opportunity for individual counseling. More fundamentally, the grades that enable Calvin to graduate from high school and the ''B'' average he has been receiving as a college freshman have been quite artificial, a kind of academic con game to disguise the undeveloped state of his learning skills.

When he discovers the deception, Calvin's obsession with self-betterment turns to rage. He reacts violently against Ginny Carlsen and against the protective sister and the adoring little niece with whom he lives.

Calvin's dilemma is not that he lacks intelligence, but that such education as he has received since moving north from Georgia has failed to prepare him to escape from an urban ghetto existence. ''All you ever say,'' he protests, ''is I got to get rid of my substandard urban speech.'' But no one tells him how.

Miss Lauro, a former college speech instructor in Manhattan, brings her firsthand knowledge and observation to the crises presented by ''Open Admissions.'' This expanded version of a former one-act play ends with a moving, biblically inspired resolution. The author hints that a true educational process may be about to begin.

Not surprisingly, the classroom vignettes provide the liveliest moments of ''Open Admissions'' as a series of ethnic students grapple with Shakespeare, guided by the pedagogic jargon of teacher and textbook. Miss Lauro also deals realistically with Calvin's supportive home life in a dingy tenement flat. The playwright is less successful at handling Ginny's domestic crisis. A disintegrating marriage to an irresponsible husband is dooming her dreams of escape from a career as ''a ghetto techer.''

''Open Admissions'' is well acted under Elinor Renfield's direction. In addition to appealing performances by Mr. Levels and Miss Rockafellow, the solid cast includes Nan-Lynn Nelson, Pam Potillo, Kevin Tighe, Maura Erin Sullivan, and Sloane Shelton (as a complacent pillar of the academic establishment). High marks are also due the members of Ginny's speech class as played by Una Kim, Vincent D'Onofrio, Evan Miranda, and C.C.H. Pounder. The production has been equipped with cumbersome scenery by David Gropman, costumes by Ann Roth and Gary Jones, and lighting by Tharon Musser.

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