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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Clearly The Niceties is ideally suited for one of those co-productions that launch a play's life with not one but several productions at prestigious theaters. The current production at Manhattan Theatre Club's City Center Stage II follows its initial run at the Huntington Theatre Company, and will move on from there to the McCarter in Princeton, NJ.
As Eleanor Burgess explains in the program's Author's Note, she did not write The Niceties to play out as an entertaining fight between good and evil. Instead, her aim was to present a civilized, if volatile, fight between two smart, good people.
Consequently, if there's a villain propelling the white, middle-aged history of revolution teacher's evaluation of an African-American student's paper to erupt into a deeply hostile, mutually destructive situation, it's the society that has seen Americans increasingly and irrevocably divided on more and more political and social issues— more so than ever now that the election on the horizon during the play's 2016 time frame has turned even more Americans against each other.
Given the demographic of the predominant audiences of the theaters mounting The Niceties , most will want the American Dream to keep being available to more African-American milennials like Zoe Reed. They will empathize with her impatience about the continued existence of discrimination. Professor Janine Bosko, despite displaying some questionable over-friendliness and tactless generalizations about Zoe's generation, is not someone likely to fit their image of a racist.
Burgess sticks to her intent not to make either of her debating duo a villain of this talky but unquestionably provocative piece. And she does tip our sympathy scale back and forth to enable us to root for both at different times.
We admire Janine's poise and intelligence, convincingly embodied in Lisa Banes's performance. and visually supported by the handsome book-lined office Cameron Anderson has created. But her overly chummy initial interaction with the student she doesn't really know has an uncomfortable undertone. It evokes a sense that here's someone from an older generation more condescending than enamored with the habits (internet research, cell phone addiction) of the generation she teaches.
As for Zoe, Jordan Boatman in an auspicious debut, depicts this political science major as a really smart and thoughtful young woman. The thesis of her paper — that a successful American Revolution was only possible because of the existence of slavery— was actually inspired by one of Janine's lectures. It's certainly intriguing. And Janine's praise of its originality supports the playwright's intent to make this a meet-up of two intelligent people discussing that paper in keeping with that title.
Trouble brews, however, as Janine insists that a history paper must be based on factual research rather than personal theories, Zoe's initial polite and admiring stance seems to have been motivated mostly by a wish to get a good grade.
And so as the respectful teacher-student exchange turns into hostile confrontation the first act ends with both Janine or Zoe no longer securely lodged on that "good person" pedestal. Zoe is too fixated on intransigent hostility; Janine too quickly turns into a rather wishy-washy defender of her hard-won place in the world of the privileged upper class.
Audiences familiar with David Mamet's 1993 Oleana (Curtainup's review of the most recent revival) will have recognized the similarities in its structure and that of The Niceties. This similarity is even more evident in the second act which sees both of our combatants' lives in chaos as a result of Zoe's turning her cell phone into a destructive weapon. that turns this debate into a public brouhaha.
That second act takes us back to the same scene three weeks later and both with our combatants' lives in chaos. Janine is on unpaid leave from her job and lost valuable consulting connections. Zoe's been so besieged by negative feedback to her activism that she's dropped out of school and become a Netflix watching couch potato.
As part of Janine's willingness to pay tribute to Zoe's theory about the failure of our democracy's slave-owning founders to include her enslaved forbears, George Washington is now gone from the wall of historic leaders. She's also invited Zoe for another visit, this time in hopes of finding a way to undo the damage.
Unfortunately, Janine's proposal for a calming joint statement is pretty much bound to fail. What's more, it continues to point to a fatal fault line in the play. Despite Kimberly Senor's subtle direction and, impassioned as Barnes and Boatman are, they somehow come across as manufactured mouthpieces for the arguments Ms. Burgess wants to bring to our attention.
Ultimately I found myself wishing I could like both these women better and that I wasn't turned off by some of the extreme rhetoric—for instance, Zoe's declaration that she's actually enjoying the opoid crisis ("I like it that white people are having trouble with drug addiction. I want them to know how it feels").
Being an optimist, I left this play hoping that though its debate ends as a war without truce in the offing, that Zoe and Janine, and the many other of today's well-intentioned but divided Americans ARE going to find a way to listen to each other again.
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The Niceties by Eleanor Burgess
Directed by Kimberly Senior
Cast: Lisa Banes as Janine and Jordan Boatman as Zoe
Sets: Cameron Anderson
Costumes: Kara Harmon
Lighting: D.M. Wood
Sound: Elisheba Ittoop
Stage Manager: Katelynn Cooper
Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, includes 1 intermission
Manhattan Theatre Club's Ny City Center Stage II – Harold and Mimi Steinberg New Play Series
From 10/12/18; opening 10/25/18l closing 11/18/18.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 10/23 press Preview
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