Ben Edelman on Starring in London's Admissions Amid College Scandal Headlines

Ben Edelman on Starring in London's Admissions Amid College Scandal Headlines
Ben Edelman in "Admissions"
(Photo: Johan Persson)

Ben Edelman burst onto the New York theater scene like a proverbial comet in last year’s Lincoln Center Theater production of Admissions, the fiery play about family dynamics and race from Joshua Harmon, the author of Bad Jews and Significant Other. And Edelman is the one member of the New York company who has crossed the Atlantic for the play’s equally terrific current West End debut at Trafalgar Studios, where the engaging and enthusiastic performer could be found early one recent evening for a chat.

Are you surprised to find yourself in the West End in a play you were doing this time last year off-Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater?
You know, playing Charlie [a high school senior at a prestigious New Hampshire prep school] here in London is part of the legacy of the gift that keeps on giving. It’s been like that at every turn of this production, I have to say, from the initial reading that came out of the blue through to now: it’s just been amazing.

Do you find yourself thinking back to the previous staging, with a different cast but with the same director, Daniel Aukin?
Honestly, one of the things that has been incredible is that I could not tell you what the differences are—beyond the fact that I love the Indian food in London! Once again, I’m around great actors and doing my work and Daniel, the director, has been with us, as well. It’s been great to rediscover the play, but you think all the while that it’s going to be so different when in fact it’s still about great actors working on this thing together.

Were you astonished to find that your London opening night coincided precisely with news of the recent college admissions scandal, in which Yale was among the academic institutions that were cited?
That was pretty crazy: I was even on the BBC to talk about it for a little spot. What’s funny is that I’m thinking, “Oh my God, I’m doing my show, which is so great,” and at the same time, this is world news. But Josh [Harmon] is so great about having the heartbeat of what’s really going on. You almost want to ask him, “Did you plan this?” as if he’s some kind of mastermind.

How do you manage here, as in New York, to safeguard your voice, given that Charlie gets some pretty extraordinary rants during the play?
I’ve found what people have always told me which is that if you really go all the way with something that it actually protects you. If I just scream or wail, then it’s like I’m 80% in it and I will lose my voice, but if I go all the way, I have to find some crazy inner resources which turn out to be there.

Do you personally identify with the landscape of a play that starts with your character’s failure to get into Yale early admission?
Both my parents went to Princeton, so the Ivy League is very much part of my family, and I dreamed of going to Princeton, which I kept hearing was one of the best schools in the world. There was only one problem in that I was a slacker [laughs]: I loved class discussion and loved learning about things but I had got myself into a situation where I sort of screwed myself over as far as having any Ivy League prospects.

So, what did you do?
I had gone to a summer camp called French Woods for like 10 years doing rock climbing and horseback riding and woodworking and everything in the world but the main thing there was theater, always theater. So, I began to think that maybe all my creative slacking was something from which I could make something creative out of my own life. I ended up applying to 19 colleges and getting rejected from 15 of them and ended up at Carnegie Mellon University.

Why there?
I was circling both CMU and Boston University, which offered a double major in acting where you could also get a degree in something else. And then I visited CMU and sat in on a few classes and found myself thinking, “This is the kind of person I feel like I am, and these are the people I want to be around.” I wanted that to be the center of my experience.

Has it been easy adjusting to your English castmates in such an American play—Alex Kingston, for instance, in the role of the mother originated in New York by Jessica Hecht?
Alex has been great! She and my mom bonded when my parents came for the opening, and she’s just such a generous spirit—but everyone is, really. [Co-star] Sarah Hadland has been insisting on teaching me her British dialect, so that’s been fun, too!

Had you had much experience of London prior to this?
Yes and no, really. I’m 26 now but came over the summer to do a course at BADA [the British American Drama Academy] in Oxford when I was 19, between my freshman and sophomore year at CMU, and we had master classes from people like Fiona Shaw and Brian Cox and Mark Wing-Davey. At the time, I was definitely enough of a dumb young idiot not to appreciate how crazy it is to be here and I certainly never thought then that I would be living and working here now.

Have you had any “pinch me” moments in the British capital thus far?
Well, I went and saw Ian McKellen’s one-man show and was, like, “I’m acting here too!”, so the answer is definitely yes. It’s possible to be so wrapped up in the work that I can sometimes forget that I love what I do and then I look around and think, “Oh my God, I’ve got everything I ever wanted: I’ve got my community and my friends in New York and the new friends I am working with and making here!”

After inhabiting as intense a person as Charlie, do you look forward to playing someone at a gentler, softer end of the spectrum?
I would say first of all if you know of any roles, let me know [laughs]! Just before starting Admissions, I did Chaim Potok’s The Chosen at the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut, in which I played this intensely quiet Orthodox Jew whose father was head rabbi but who wants himself to become a psychologist, which is totally taboo.

Where did that role figure on what we might call the “Edelman spectrum”?
I do recognize that I have a certain intensity about me, which is not something I can make disappear, but I like the thought of taking that natural intensity of mine in a different direction. I love comedy, for instance, and would like to think I can manage a certain lightness, too. It was great in The Chosen to play someone very quiet and shy who then comes out of his shell.

And in light of the open-ended conclusion to Admissions, not to be revealed here, what do you think the future holds for Charlie?
That’s a really tough question and there’s no way to really know, which is kind of what is so beautiful about it. People have described this show [which has no intermission] as being in two acts: there’s the play and then there’s the second act which is people going home and talking about the play! I grapple with Charlie’s future myself, but I think it’s really important to leave it to the imagination.