Don’t be fooled by the title of Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties, now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Studio at Stage II at New York City Center. Despite the name, there are no civilities, no handshakes, no pledges of sisterhood or fidelity. Nothing is resolved. I loved it. The other thing that I really liked about Burgess’ approach to her two-character, conflict-filled play is that there is no clear villain.
In fact, the stage directions at the top of the play say “Both of these women can be noble. Both of them can be charming. Both of them can be petulant, snotty, arrogant, overwhelmed and immature. Let them both be people. And resist the temptation to think of only one of them as a mouthpiece for the truth. When it comes to the facts of history, almost everything that both of the women in this play say is right.” What a concept, a disagreement where both sides have merit! And stunningly, the central tension is around race, yet the issues are presented in shades of grey.
The Niceties is set in an unnamed elite Northeastern university. Janine (Lisa Banes), a white history professor in her 60’s, is offering comments to her black student Zoe (Jordan Boatman) on a draft of a paper Zoe has written on the American Revolution. It starts out friendly enough with Janine giving technical grammatical notes on the first few pages. Janine is in her element, chatty and enthusiastic. Zoe is relaxed, polite and responsive, but she keeps looking at her phone. She clearly has somewhere else she needs to be. As the session turns from the technical aspects of Zoe’s writing to the subject matter, the impact of slavery on the American Revolution, a chasm opens up between them. That keeps getting wider and wider, until it causes a rift that can’t be breached.
Playwright Burgess was a history major at Yale during the 2015 Halloween costume free speech controversy. Witnessing that campus turmoil over an educator’s letter championing students’ rights to freedom of speech was Burgess’ inspiration for The Niceties. What she sets out to explore is not really the differences that keep people apart. But rather how people who essentially have the same belief systems are separated by small details that might not align with their understanding. And, how the national discourse has deteriorated to the point where a discussion of ideas can no longer take place without violence and threats.
The Niceties crackles and sparks with friction. Burgess’ characters are drawn with precision and her dialogue is expertly crafted to keep both the tension and the attention high. Director Kimberly Senior keeps the pace crisp and the focus where it needs to be in the ping pong game between professor and student. Jordan Boatman is absolutely magnificent as the pushed-to-the-limit student Zoe. We can see her keen intelligence, and the unknowing jabs that she tries not to feel or respond to. And we can feel her pain when told she has to get over being angry about slavery and she finally snaps and says “I’m so tired of remembering for both of us. This should be a pain that we share. I have been carrying all of this around on my own. I have been carrying your share of history, as well as mine, and I need you to take your half. I can’t carry it all anymore. I will get exhausted and go crazy, I will have no joy-.“
Lisa Banes is the epitome of the confident, caring and experienced professor. So experienced in helping her students down a certain path, and, as an older woman in academia, so unused to seeing herself as part of the “white male establishment,” she has, perhaps, become a little tone-deaf. Banes does a masterful job of bringing to life the controlled, intelligent, and strong professor. Who is herself a little shocked when confronted by a student she sees has great potential but keeps rejecting her offers of help. Because Zoe has other priorities. The extracurricular protests that Zoe coordinates preclude her re-doing her paper for content, but she needs and wants a good grade from Janine.
When their conflict goes public, the uproar that it causes turns out to be detrimental for both parties. The disruption to their lives brings them together for a brief moment that has them acknowledging their similarities rather than differences. But they are unable to make a solid bridge across the gap between them. However, what it does do for the audience, is allow us to listen to both sides without an emotional stake in the outcome (as far as we are able – we all have our personal beliefs and ideas). And allow us to see value in both sides of the argument. Not something we get exposed to every day.
(Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
What the popular press says...
"Directed by Kimberly Senior for Manhattan Theater Club, The Niceties is a bristling, provocative debate play about race and privilege in the United States, and it begs to be argued with — partly because Ms. Burgess has manipulated the contest in ways that feel unnecessary."
Laura Collins-Hughes for New York Times
"The Niceties suggests that there may be no way to bridge the generational, racial and class divides on the left. Although your pulse might race while you watch these warriors, you may also feel your heart sink. As the women keep taking their swings, the play starts going in circles."
Raven Snook for Time Out New York
External links to full reviews from popular press...