What do we now make of the incendiary confrontation between a liberal white middle-aged professor and her radical black student in Eleanor Burgess’s ironically titled “The Niceties,” now that MTC is streaming the play two and a half years after first presenting it on stage? In that relatively brief time, Americans have been turned upside down by three Capital Events: The Pandemic, The Reckoning, and The Insurrection.
Do they make the debates in “The Niceties” prescient or redundant? Is the play still timely or has it become tiresome? I suspect that your answer after seeing the play would depend on the views you already held before it. That’s how people seemed to react to it the first time around.
Set during the primary season in 2016, “The Niceties” begins nicely enough, when we see college junior Zoe Reed (Jordan Boatman) Skyping (actually Zooming) with her history professor Janine Bosko (Lisa Banes) to go over the thesis paper she’s handed in early for the course Janine teaches on the history of revolutions. Janine helpfully corrects some grammar and other aspects of the writing, accompanied by friendly advice and anecdotes that make her smile; Zoe apologizes for her errors (“I was trying to get the whole thing in early…I skipped a few usual proofreading steps.”)
Then Janine takes issue with the main argument in Zoe’s paper, that “a successful American Revolution was only possible because of the existence of slavery.” This time, Zoe sticks up for herself. The back-and-forth between the two about the claim is intellectually stimulating, a sample of what’s best about this play. (The playwright was a history major at Yale.) Janine offers Zoe the opportunity to do further research of primary documents to back up her argument. Zoe responds that she doesn’t have the time; she’s organizing several protests.
“You are overcommitted to your extra-curriculars.”
“This isn’t extracurricular… I don’t do it for fun.”
These first 25 minutes or so astutely observe the dynamics between professor and student, subtly enacted by the two performers, sometimes to comic effect. At one point, Janine excitedly goes back to her bookcase to retrieve a book so that she can offer another historical anecdote, while Zoe impatiently checks her smart phone. “Well, please, if I’m keeping you from doing something, if there’s someplace you need to be,” Janine says, in a tone of professorial courtesy that masks (but not really) her having taken offense. “No, sorry, there isn’t,” Zoe says, in a show of scholastic deference that masks (but not really) her resentment.
The student-teacher conference soon ratchets up into ideological debate on a range of issues, reflecting the different perspectives of a liberal (Janine sips from a Hillary mug) versus radical; white versus black; baby boomer versus millennial. Janine accuses Zoe’s generation of having a “cult of fragility.” Zoe answers: “It’s not fragility. It’s awareness”
The arguments blow up into personal attacks, and then take a dramatic turn that feels reminiscent of David Mamet’s 1992 “Oleanna,” in that their conflict becomes public. In Act II, we see that it has unsettled both their lives.
If Zoe and Janine are less fully fleshed out characters than representatives of their points of view, Burgess does give them some specifics that complicate their stories. Janine is a lesbian, and in a throwaway line, we learn that Zoe grew up in an affluent area in Westchester where Janine’s immigrant mother worked as a domestic.
Still, for all the lively, impassioned argument, the characters don’t really listen to one another, although they claim to do so; and neither changes. This seems to be a flaw in the play, encouraging the viewers too to take sides rather than listen. But “The Niceties” may also just reflect the current flaw in our culture. The playwright could just be presenting the way things are.
Online through June 13, 2021
Written by Eleanor Burgess
Directed by Kimberly Senior
Cast: Lisa Banes and Jordan Boatman
Running time: 110 minutes
Free with registration