Of the many vexing demands made of eighth graders applying to public high school in New York City, a process so byzantine it seems designed to get their parents to move to New Jersey, perhaps the strangest revolves around the “Fantastical Sandwich.” In addition to a portfolio that includes seven examples of original creative work, students interested in certain art and design programs must submit a pencil drawing that stages, as the Department of Education instructions put it, “an interesting scene of a character eating a sandwich in 3 phases.”
This appears relevant only if your focus is in animation, a decision the system expects a child to have made while still clinging to spaceship jammies. But if you plan to concentrate on graphic design, then you must come at lunch from a different angle, conjuring a new neighborhood restaurant and designing a subway poster for its specialty sandwich, which needs to include a catchy slogan.
While the particular exercise goes unmentioned in “School Pictures,” a one-man Off Broadway show about the indignities of late-stage middle-school life in a city defined by toxic competition and inequity, the absurdity infuses its spirit. The writing and performance comes to us from Milo Cramer, a playwright who spent several years making rent as a tutor, mostly working with 12- and 13-year-olds who were preparing to enter challenging high schools.
Often the remit was to help them study for the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, the sole criteria for entry to schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, places with which Mr. Cramer, who grew up amid the simpler folkways of suburban Connecticut, had little experience.
As a young artist living in Brooklyn with no children, Mr. Cramer absorbed all the chaos and longing from just the right psychological vantage — one that gives the play a layered, compassionate view of the striving urban parents and pressured children so routinely distilled to cliché.
Too often, theater about contemporary social disruptions plays out merely as the reductive paraphrase to an extant body of nonfiction work that really knows what it is talking about. Here, the opposite feels true. Mr. Cramer is young, uncooked and open enough to receive these children as they are, foregrounding their voices in all of their complexity and self-contradiction, their resistance and silence and honesty and delight, taking you where the opinion writer or cultural anthropologist can’t.
The setup, a pseudo musical, has Mr. Cramer wailing funny songs that tell the stories of individual, fictionalized students accompanied by a ukulele and, at one point, a toy piano. There’s Divya, who needs help with a five-paragraph essay that must address the hamfisted question: “Is ‘Othello’ racist?” She has no idea.
“I’m like, ‘Have you read the play?’” Mr. Cramer sings. “She’s like, ‘Yes, and I watched the Laurence Fishburne movie.’ I’m like, ‘Great, so what do you think?’ She’s like, ‘Dunno, I’m 15, I’m afraid to say the wrong thing.’” The narrator is just as afraid.
At the heart of the play are questions about what is really worth knowing and what sacrifices warrant the effort in a system in which success seems so arbitrarily distributed. The production opened just as thousands of families around the city have found themselves in the midst of the high school application process, racing toward the deadline on Dec. 1. Year after year, application after application, it never isn’t awful. Recently, in a Facebook group devoted to questions and laments about the particulars of this onerous undertaking, a mother posted about students in her daughter’s class who cried and threw up after taking the SHSAT this fall.
Beyond the world of test-in schools are dozens of others where acceptance is granted according to an alchemy of merit, need and chance, which parents are left spending thousands of hours trying to decipher and game. You are likely to miss days of work — presuming that is even possible — going to open houses and finding no obvious choice for the child who plays the harp and loves STEM but also wants a baseball team. Or you might fall deeply in love with a school where Restoration comedy is taught in 10th grade but discover that there is zero chance of getting in because you are stuck with a terrible lottery number that arrives long enough to look like a UPS tracking code.
Mr. Cramer, who uses the plural pronoun, wonders about their role in this sorting factory, and whether they are engaged in dark-arts complicity or an honorable act of service. What real wisdom, the play asks, can a tutor impart? And what value would that wisdom even hold for students who don’t believe that the world will be around by the time they are 30?
There were families who were scraping together the money to pay for instruction, and some cases where, as Mr. Cramer recounted to me, “the kid is already a small business; you’re there with the maid and the music teacher.” It struck Mr. Cramer that so many parents wanted their children to take music lessons, “but they don’t want their kids to be musicians.”
For a long time, Mr. Cramer also worked at a patisserie in Park Slope where former Mayor Bill de Blasio was a regular. As we learn in the show, while receiving daily one-dollar tips from him, Mr. Cramer worried about being spotted by tutoring clients, imagining that more than anything else, those parents probably did not want their children to become Brooklyn baristas. “I really felt like a fraud at first,” Mr. Cramer told me. “You have to present like you are the pathway to collegiate success.” No matter how empty you have seen it to be.
The system, Mr. Cramer has observed at the end of it all, is designed “to make kids hate themselves,” wherever a bourgeois understanding of achievement is taken as gospel. “All my friends feel like failures,” Mr. Cramer said, “and it is because we all came up in it.”