The Old College Try
Play By Bryan Starchman
[A married couple, JOAN and BILL LEOPOLD sit at a large oak desk facing MR.SMITH, a silver-haired facilitator. He is dressed in an expensive suit and has never sweated a day in his life. JOAN and BILL are entitled yuppies who complain at brunch about the salinity of Kumamoto oysters and count the bubbles in their Veuve Clicquot to ensure the bottle has been newly opened. They have never been denied a solitary thing and expect that the world will continue to spin according to their will.]
MR. SMITH [shuffling through their file]: Mmmmm hmmmmm.
[Joan and Bill strain to see what Mr. SMITH is reading over.]
MR. SMITH [leans back in his chair, mouth open, about to say something]: Uh…I…
[Joan and Bill are on the edge of their seats, their chemically peeled faces and freshly bleached anuses tight with anticipation.]
[Mr. SMITH hesitates, bites down on his words, lets out a sigh, and delves back into their file.]
JOAN: Please…it can’t…it can’t be that bad.
[MR. SMITH looks up, a withering smile creeping across his lips.]
BILL: Do we have any chance at all?
MR. SMITH: That all depends on you. I’m looking over your finances here and…
JOAN: Now you have to understand that a lot of that isn’t liquid but it will be soon. The yoga studio has been on the market for three months and we had some serious interest until the sewer line burst. That was the city’s fault and once the odor—
[Mr. SMITH silences her with a wave of his hand.]
BILL: My father is ill. Two strokes in the past year. He never liked my brother and I am sure he will be leaving me a significant portion of his estate. If you could just take us in good faith and—
MR. SMITH: Faith? Sir, we don’t traffic in faith here. You came to me because you wanted a sure bet. If you were counting on hope and a prayer you would mail this application in “as is” but you know what would happen. Don’t you?
JOAN: You tell us. That’s why we’re here. [she stands, shaking with building anger] You tell us what chance our little boy has!
BILL [reaching out to calm his wife]: Joan. Joan, it’s alright.
JOAN [collapsing into tears]: It’s not alright! We’re talking about the rest of Benedict’s life.[she blows her nose on a vintage 18th-century Parisian handkerchief and collects herself.]. I’m sorry. I just…could you just tell us the worst-case scenario?
MR. SMITH: I must insist that you compose yourself. There are other applicants meeting with other facilitators in these offices. I don’t want your circumstances to cause them to panic over their own children.
BILL: Ok. Ok. We will remain calm. Right honey? [Joan nods, tears still streaming down hercheeks]. Just give it to us straight.
MR. SMITH: Fine. Worst case?
BILL: Worst case.
MR. SMITH: Chico State.
JOAN [screaming out in agony]: Ohhhh God!!!
BILL [cradling his wife]: Shhhhh. It’s okay! At least it’s a four-year…
JOAN [seething with anger]: Are you fucking serious, Bill? Do you know what the Hamiltons would say? Their little Meredith got into Harvard. Mother fucking Harvard! Do you think we’d ever be invited to another weekend in the Hamptons if Benedict went to Chico fucking State? DO YOU!?!
MR. SMITH [hand raised]: I’m going to have to remind you that we have other clients in other offices and…
BILL: I’m sorry. She has a condition.
JOAN: Fucking shit!
BILL: She gets anxiety and then she can’t control her language.
JOAN: Stinking bitch! Son of a slut! Cocksucker!
BILL [taking out a bejeweled Crimean snuff box]: Here. Here, take your locally sourced lavender and CBD-infused losange.[She pops the losange in her mouth and begins to immediately calm down.]
JOAN: I’m alright…I’m going to be alright.
MR. SMITH: Now, if not Chico State…[Joan sobs.]
MR. SMITH [cont]: …perhaps somewhere in the Midwest. Somewhere no one has ever heard of…
BILL: Good, that’s good!
MR. SMITH: There is a small liberal arts college just outside of Akron, Ohio that is known for its sugar spinning. Does Benedict enjoy baking?
BILL: Well he eats a lot of pop tarts…
JOAN: It was his extracurriculars, wasn’t it!?!
MR. SMITH: We have to factor in a lot of different things—
JOAN: That God Damn XBOX! [Bill offers her another losange and she smacks it out of his hand]. His whole future pissed away because of Fortnite.
BILL: Well, it has helped him to be more social—
JOAN: Are you kidding me? His best friend is a 15-year-old Korean girl whose avatar looks like a sexy kitten.
MR. SMITH: Oftentimes those are actually grown men posing as young girls…
JOAN [a new wave of emotion breaks over her] Ohhhh Gawd!!!
BILL [turning white]: He invited her to virtual prom.
MR. SMITH: Let’s try to get back on track. Shall we? Tell me. Why are you here?
BILL: We heard you were the best.
MR. SMITH: I am.
BILL: We’ve tried everything else. $500 a head dinners with the alumni association. Promissory notes based on future income dedicated towards a new science wing. Joan volunteered her time teaching restorative yoga to a group of professors.
JOAN: It was a nightmare! Some of those adjuncts haven’t seen their toes since they were undergrads.
BILL: We thought we were out of options but then our friend—
BILL: Our acquaintance, Henry Noble. He told us that you helped get his daughter into Berkeley.
JOAN: He cleans our pool.
MR. SMITH: What difference does that make?[Joan just gives him a withering look.]
MR. SMITH: Well Mr. Noble came to us when his daughter Sarah was only a freshman. We were able to get her enrolled in our weekend SAT prep and college essay writing workshops. We made sure that she was enrolled in a variety of diverse and challenging classes. She took two online college courses in Shakespeare and psychology. And she began volunteering at the local shelter. After three years we were able to build up an impressive application.
JOAN: But we don’t have three years! Benedict is a senior.
MR. SMITH: I’m well aware. [beat, looking over their file]. Have you considered a gap year?
BILL: A what now?
MR. SMITH: A gap year. A year off between high school and college. Benedict could spend that year doing all the things I just mentioned. SAT prep. Additional classes. Volunteer work. And then he could reapply in the fall. Maybe a year of maturity would do him good. Less XBOX, more studying. Once the busy season is over I could connect him with a fantastic tutor who could come to your home three times a week and—
JOAN: You mean have him live at home for another year?
MR. SMITH: Well, we do offer a gap year abroad but considering your son’s lack of ambition I am not sure that would be a wise choice.
JOAN: No. No way.
BILL: Honey, maybe we should at least consider—
JOAN: NO! I already have my crafting table assembled in the solarium and my potter’s wheel is arriving next week. I am not going to put my art on hold for another year. I need him out of his room so I can finally have a proper studio.
BILL: Joan likes to work in clay.
JOAN: I don’t like to do anything. I have to work in clay. It is the only way I can express myself.
BILL: One time she told me our marriage was on the rocks through a very ornate lacquered chalice.
MR. SMITH: Let’s focus on the task at hand…
BILL [to himself]: She threw it at my head.
MR. SMITH: Now…we do offer an unorthodox pathway to college.
JOAN: What do you mean unorthodox? I don’t want him going into some hippie dippy Teach for America program. That’s as bad as a junior college.
MR. SMITH: No no. Nothing like that.[Mr. SMITH pulls out a stack of folders in an array of colors ranging from off white and beige on the top to bright shades of yellow to orange to deep red with a dark black file at the bottom.]
MR. SMITH: Here I have all of the major American universities.. UCLA, Clemson, NYU,USC… [holding up the black folder on top] Princeton.
[Joan and Bill both instinctively reach for the black folder and Mr. Smith pulls it back out of their reach.]
MR. SMITH: And in each of these folders our team of application experts have a data driven formula ensuring that your son will be accepted given his current transcripts, extra-curricular activities, and financial status.
BILL: Why didn’t you mention this before?
MR. SMITH: We don’t offer this to all of our clients. As I said, it’s a bit unorthodox and as such the contract that we must enter into is also a bit unconventional.
JOAN: We are desperate! We’ll do anything!
MR. SMITH: Yes. That’s what I’m starting to realize. Before we continue, you have to understand that this pathway will require varying degrees of sacrifice from both of you as well as from your son.
BILL: We can’t offer you any more money than we have promised. We’ve been completely forthright with you and—
MR. SMITH: No. You haven’t. You didn’t disclose the safe hidden in your wine cellar or the rare coins that are locked within. You failed to divulge the offshore account where you hid the small fortune you made from insider trading. [turning to Joan] And until today, I didn’t realize that your wedding ring was a vintage sixteen carat diamond Cartier set in platinum with matching chandelier earrings.[Joan instinctively covers her ears.]
MR. SMITH: Now let’s cut out the theatrics and get down to the business at hand. How important is it to you that Benedict gets into a prestigious school?
MR. SMITH [looking over at Bill]: Do you agree?
BILL: Yes. Everything.
MR. SMITH: Good! [he pulls out a lengthy contract and a shining gold pen]. Sign here.
BILL [starting to read it over]: You wouldn’t mind if I just had my lawyer take a quick looksee—
MR. SMITH [snatching away the contracts]: I don’t think we can help you.
BILL [reaching out]: Now hold on…
JOAN: Bill! [seething]. Don’t you dare fuck this up for me!
BILL: I’ll sign! We’ll sign!
MR. SMITH [with a disarming grin]: Excellent![Bill and Joan each sign.]
MR. SMITH [pointing out sections to them]: And initial here…here…and date here.[Bill and Joan do as they are told.]
MR. SMITH: Now, hold out your right arm.
[Bill and Joan hold out their arms across the desk.]
[Mr. Smith pulls out a futuristic looking hypodermic injection gunand quickly fires something into Bill’s forearm.]
BILL: Jesus Christ! What the hell was that?
MR. SMITH: Insurance. [he turns to Joan]
BILL: Honey, let’s take a minute to think this through—
JOAN [holding out her arm in defiance]: Don’t be such a little bitch.[Joan winces a bit as Mr. SMITH injects her as well.]
MR. SMITH: Alright. Now that our offices are insured, please hand over the jewelry and we’ll get started.
[Joan hesitates for a second and then removes the ring and earrings. She is about to drop them in Mr. Smith’s outstretched hand when she pauses…]
MR. SMITH: If that’s what you want, then that’s what you shall have.
[Joan closes her eyes and lets the jewelry drop into Mr. SMITH’s hand. In one quick movement they disappear into a drawer in his desk.]
MR. SMITH: That’s the monetary sacrifice. Now to find out the physical price.
BILL: Excuse me?
MR. SMITH: Do you really think your son can get into Princeton?
BILL: Well. Sure. Those diamonds are worth a small fortune and…
MR. SMITH: The diamonds are to cover our costs. This type of work doesn’t come cheap. Princeton doesn’t admit just any overweight suburban flunky addicted to his XBOX.
BILL: Hey! You can’t talk about my son that way!
MR. SMITH: Please. This is no time to get indignant. You didn’t put in the work for the past seventeen years and now you have to make sacrifices to get what you want. Nothing comes easy, Mr. Leopold.
JOAN: What do we need to do? Lie about our income? Write his essay for him? Pretend that we’re more ethnic? Our maid is Armenian. We could be Armenian!
MR. SMITH: We have to invent a tragedy.
BILL: What does that mean?
MR. SMITH [opening a light green colored folder]: Well. For example. To get into Oregon State—
MR. SMITH [glaring at Joan]: —to get into Oregon State [she remains quiet] Benedict wouldneed to…lose a finger.
JOAN: Lose a finger?
MR. SMITH [reading carefully]: Or two toes.
BILL: What are you talking about!?!
MR. SMITH: Our formulas are never wrong. Given his SAT scores, GPA, and lack of interest in anything outside of virtually teabagging his opponents, he would need to write his essay about the challenges he faces after having lost a finger…or two toes.
BILL: Are you insane?
MR. SMITH: And of course we will write the essay for him. That service is included in the cost of your contract.
BILL [his anger is building as he rises out of his seat]: I don’t know what kind of sick game you’re playing but—
JOAN [reaching out to Bill, she is extremely calm]: Bill. Sit down.
[He sees that she is serious and sits down.]
JOAN: We can do better than Oregon State.
MR. SMITH: Of course you can.
JOAN: What would…UCLA cost us?
MR. SMITH [flipping through a light blue folder]: Testicular cancer. He’d only lose one ball. Still able to pass on the family name.
JOAN [partially to herself]: He could live with one ball…
BILL: How is this possible!?! You can’t possibly give my son testicular cancer!
MR. SMITH: We work with a diverse group of financially motivated professionals. If you chose Oregon State for example, a counseling error would enroll him in a shop class starting Monday. A new foreign exchange student would be assigned as his partner and this student would accidentally slice your son’s thumb off in a freak bandsaw accident. Due to his negligence, he would be whisked back to Croatia or wherever and your son would have a tragedy to write about.
MR. SMITH [getting exasperated]: You take your son for a routine physical to a doctor in our network. He discovers a lump and removes the left or right testicle. Your choice. And then your son would have a tragedy to write about.
BILL: But…we would sue. For malpractice.
MR. SMITH: No. You wouldn’t.
BILL: Yes. We would.
MR. SMITH [holding up his hypodermic gun]: The latest in nanotechnology. Tiny capsules containing the deadliest neurotoxin known to man are now permanently embedded in your bodies. If you do anything to threaten this company I simply have to enter a code into an app on my phone and you’ll both be dead in seconds. Totally untraceable. Looks like you’ve had a massive coronary. Heart disease is the number one killer of men… [acknowledging Joan] …and women.
BILL [the realization of what they’ve signed up for is sinking in]: Then… [grabbing a letter opener off the desk] …I’ll kill you after he gets accepted!
MR. SMITH [he sighs, rolls his eyes, and in an impossibly fast movement he is holding a gun onBill]: I just work here, Mr. Leopold.
[Bill hesitates, drops the letter opener, and sits.]
MR. SMITH [not lowering the gun]: A hundred employees around the world have access to your specific code. You kill me. So what? You’ll be dead too. Besides… [lowering the gun and wiping it down with a polishing cloth] …you agreed not to cause any bodily harm to me when you signed the contract. [putting the gun away] If you can’t trust a man’s word, then what can you trust? [smiling wolfishly] Am I right?
JOAN [raising her hand to silence Bill]: I want to hear about Princeton.
MR. SMITH [he cocks one eyebrow as he lifts the black folder off the bottom of the pile]: The darker the berry, the sweeter the fruit. [he takes a moment before speaking] Well…this is extreme to say the least.
BILL: Just tell us!
MR. SMITH: The loss of his father would guarantee entrance into Princeton.
BILL [scoffs]: You’re insane.
MR. SMITH [still reading]: This sort of massive tragedy will forgive years of apathy and procrastination. We still have a couple of months before applications are due. Combined with an outstanding personal essay and a highly trained imposter taking the SAT in your son’s place, we can guarantee admission to Princeton. Now once he’s there, he will need to take initiative to—
BILL: No. No way.
JOAN: Your brother’s kids didn’t even get into Princeton.
BILL: You can’t be serious.
JOAN: Let’s just think this through…
BILL: You can’t be fucking serious!
JOAN: I just want to talk about the possibility of—
BILL: If you’re so keen on the idea, why don’t you fucking die for the cause? The world would be just fine with one less downward facing failed artiste. How about that Mr. Smith? How about my sweet little bride bites the bullet to get what she wants for her precious son?
MR. SMITH: Sorry. According to our calculations, the father has to die for the tragedy to persuade the Princeton admissions office. Now if Benedict were a girl—
JOAN: Failed artiste? Who the fuck do you think you are?
BILL: Oh. Oh!?! Are you offended? After threatening my life!?! In sickness and in health? Do those vows mean anything to you!?!
JOAN: You Goddamn hypocrite.
BILL: What are you on about?
JOAN: To love and to cherish? Were you cherishing me when you were up to your eyebrows in your secretary’s snatch? [Bill looks shocked.]
JOAN [cont]: You didn’t think I knew? [disgusted]You didn’t even have the decency to wash your face.
MR. SMITH: I can see you two might need some time to discuss your options. If you’d like to make an appointment for later in the week I could—
BILL: No. Fuck this. And fuck you. Both of you! [standing, seething, his finger in his wife’s face] You’re sick! I’m spending the night at the lake house. I want you and your shit out of my house by the time I get off work tomorrow.
MR. SMITH [rising]: Sir. If you’d just be reasonable for one moment—
[Bill raises his middle finger over his head and exits the office.]
JOAN: I’m sorry.
MR. SMITH: For what?
JOAN [standing, gathering up her belongings]: For my husband’s behavior. [wiping her eyes, trying to fix her Stepford Wife smile]. He can get a little reactionary.
MR. SMITH: I see all kinds in this line of work.
JOAN: Well. I think Benedict’s college admission is the least of my worries at this point. When the other wives at the country club find out about Bill’s infidelity and the divorce and the— [she suddenly collapses, clinging to the edge of the desk.] [sobbing] What am I going to do…
MR. SMITH [not wanting to touch her, he gently pats her hand]: There, there. It’s not his fault that he didn’t read the contract.
JOAN [her mascara running down her cheeks]: What are you talking about?
MR. SMITH [spreading out the contract on his desk in a dramatic flourish]: You both have equal power since you are both the legal guardians of your son. If he doesn’t want to commit to a plan of action, you can always make the decision independently. After all, your son’s future is at stake. [he takes a pause and looks into her eyes]. Your future is at stake.
[Joan gathers her strength and slowly stands. She picks up the black folder and hands it to Mr.SMITH.]
MR. SMITH [pulling out his phone]: Excellent choice, Mrs. Leopold.
JOAN: Sagan. After my husband’s death I’ll go by my maiden name: Sagan.
MR. SMITH: Very good Ms. Sagan.
[MR. SMITH punches a code into his phone and the lights fade to black.]
About the Author
BRYAN STARCHMAN is an author, published playwright, and public school teacher living in San Francisco, California. His short fiction was recently featured in The Saturday Evening Post, After Dinner Conversation, and the literary magazine In Parentheses. His non-fiction essays have been featured in the national print magazine ROVA and his latest book, United Scenes of America: Travel Essays in the time of COVID-19 and other wanderings, is now available at Amazon.com. Learn more about Bryan at http://www.bryanstarchman.com, or follow him on Instagram @bryan.starchman. To view more of her work click below.