A confession up front: I agreed to review Inadmissible mostly to check out the brand new Canal Park Playhouse, which turns out to be a tiny but well-appointed theater in a historic 1826 house at the far west end of Canal Street. Outside, traffic swoops continuously in and out of the Holland Tunnel, a structure a century younger than 508 Canal.
It's a part of town I'd never before seen on foot. Baleful green signs directing tunnel traffic glare down onto cobblestoned streets and a melange of faceless fencing, impressive Soho architecture, and handfuls of historic old buildings like #508, where the Playhouse is staging an entertaining new comedy on an unlikely subject.
D. B. Gilles' three-person play spins a web of deceit and intrigue around the seemingly non-controversial process of deciding who will be admitted to a middling graduate theater program. Heading the admissions committee is Elaine, a faintly terrifying combination of dry world-weariness and tightly-wound ruthlessness played by Kathryn Kates (Seinfeld's Bakery Lady), a marvelously natural actress – the script simply disappears from view when she speaks her lines.
Colluding and clashing with Elaine is Martin (Richard Hoehler), a blandly bearish, prickly professor ("It's a burden being perceived as someone who knows what he's doing") prepared to fight hard for his own favorites among the applicants, whose talent is by no means the primary gauge by which they are judged. Joanna, a struggling but ambitious adjunct, played by the highly focused Charise Greene, is brought in to complete the triumvirate when its third member is taken ill, and she becomes the pawn of her elders – but then, there are so many plot twists that Gilles never lets us know for sure who has the upper hand.
Though the interesting part of the action takes a while to get rolling, Gilles' witty, sometimes Mamet-quick dialogue seldom flags, slowly building the story to a pleasingly twisted conclusion. But the main pleasure here is less in finding out what's going to happen than in watching the characters' layers peel away to reveal their rough, scratchy cores. Exemplifying this process is a priceless moment when Elaine gets on the phone and browbeats a potential student's mother into increasing her donation to the school. Putting down the phone having accomplished her goal, Elaine is stunningly quiet and still, almost shellshocked at this cold evidence – displayed right in front of Martin – of what she can do and be when the stakes are high.