Six young people sit at desks in a classroom. A male teacher stands before them. The whiteboard in the background reads "13 days until the PSAT." Inspirational posters are taped on the back wall.
National Merit at BoHo Theatre Credit: Bari Baskin/Time Stops Photography

If National Merit had to be pitched as a movie, it would be “The Breakfast Club in a test prep class.” Competing for high scores and the scholarship that goes with them—and, perhaps more important, the accolade of National Merit Scholar—are The Privileged Jerk, The Sidekick, The Striver, The Weird Girl . . . . But because it’s 2022 there are also issues of race and ethnicity (notably missing from John Hughes’s utopia) with a glance at homophobia and suicide for added weight. I’m making it sound more formulaic and trivial than it is: in director Enrico Spada’s skillful world premiere production of Valen-Marie Santos’s play for BoHo Theatre, we believe in all of these people as well as in the instructor, who seems to have even less perspective than they do, and in his aide, a literal cheerleader whose unceasing efforts to please evolve from silly to annoying to pathetic. 

National Merit
Through 9/25: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Sat 9/3 and 9/17, 3 PM, Mon 9/12, 7:30 PM, and Wed 9/21, 7:30 PM, Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, 773-975-8150,, $30 ($15 seniors, military, and first responders, $10 students)

My companion shrugged and said, “Right, we know, we put too much pressure on these kids.” But that wasn’t how I understood the piece at all. Perhaps the difference was that she’s the mother of someone who went through this experience, whereas I’m still someone who went through this experience myself. My brother was a National Merit Scholar, and it was so important for me not to compete with him, risking either failure or success, that I overslept on the morning of the test and missed it. So the disproportionate urgency felt by these characters and the accompanying distortion of their behavior felt to me both real and vital.