|The McCarter Theatre Center presents The Niceties
posted by Ralph Malachowski on Jan 29, 2019 10:30am | comments
Originally developed at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia in 2017, then further developed at the Portland Stage Company, The Niceties, a play by Eleanor Burgess, is presented in association with Huntington Theatre Company and Manhattan Theatre Club at the McCarter Theatre Center where it will be performed until February 10, 2019.
The Niceties takes place at an Ivy League University in the Northeast, according to the production notes. The time is 2016, after spring break, but before the November election. We know this because Zoe, an African-American student of a Polish-American professor named Janine, has written a paper required in a class taught by Janine, a distinguished, tenured professor with impeccable academic credentials. We see Janine correcting Zoe’s poor grammar, much to Zoe’s annoyance. Zoe becomes increasingly agitated when the professor points out the student’s lack of intellectual rigor and her dry style of writing. Zoe is a busy teen, who used her spring break to write the paper so as to submit a draft for commentary. Zoe, clearly having a thin skin, does not appreciate the professor’s suggestion to improve the paper while correcting some of the more obvious errors in attribution and syntax. Zoe loses no time in asserting that she is very intelligent, and has no time to do any rewrites since she cannot fit such a mundane thing into her busy activism on campus. An increasingly agitated Zoe begins sniping at the meek, rather scatter-brained professor, who has a penchant for whimsy and bad jokes. Zoe often states that she is very intelligent and needs an “A” and more than hints that Janine better give her one. Zoe’s comment smacks of blackmail as she tells Janine that getting nothing less than an “A” would jeopardize her grade point average and her easy entrance into an elite program she covets. This is just the beginning of the bitter confrontation between the two women which is the plot of The Niceties.
As the play progresses, we witness how insolent, confrontational, obsessive, racist, grandiose, sexist, and ageist Zoe truly is, while Janine the professor is a needy, fragile, befuddled older woman who has few personal boundaries and a taste for masochism. In short, Janine is the perfect victim who has conveniently fallen before the raptor called Zoe. Playwright Eleanor Burgess has created a play designed to push every button among dozens of hot-button topics to befuddle her dazed audience. David Mamet’s Oleanna is eerily similar in both plot and context to The Niceties. Mamet has a clearly disturbed student and a foolish professor entwine ever deeper in an escalating war which the psychotic student will clearly win. To her credit, Burgess has polished her hate buffet more than Mamet, giving The Niceties a reasonably pretty sugar coating on the cyanide pill. In The Niceties, the playwright has wielded her scalpel deftly into the soft underbelly of the caring, clueless, but foolishly unguarded older woman. Burgess stated in the program that she wrote The Niceties to open dialogue about important subjects. If that is the intention, Burgess has fallen far short of her goal. The confrontation between Zoe and Janine is far from equal, since Burgess gives all the best lines to Zoe. Burgess clearly paints Janine as a self-serving apparatus of the status quo, a woman who has sold out to the patriarchy and to racism. Zoe repeatedly drives these points home. Every tawdry, nasty thought was like feces being flung about to see what might stick. The audience needed to duck for cover many times. At intermission, an audience member laughed when the stage crew took down the portrait of George Washington in Janine’s office. A sign that Zoe not only won the battle, but will have Janine’s career destroyed. He was correct. Like Mamet’s Oleanna, we soon learn in the second act that the professor is suspended without pay, her standing in academia destroyed, her new book will not be published, and her tenure up for review.
The Niceties is a grenade thrown into a septic tank. Thought provoking, yes; occasionally funny in a macabre and sinister way? Yes. Audience members occasionally laughed at the ludicrous clichés, blatant racism and hatred from Zoe and foolish comments from Janine. The Niceties contains no redeeming qualities since its apparent aim was to name prejudices out loud in order to excite the basest instincts of hatred and revenge. Again, as in Mamet, Burgess is anti-intellectual at so many turns. A warning to our LGBTQ audience, a lesbian twist has been thrown in for good measure. At the end of The Niceties, we have Janine finally growing a backbone, informing Zoe that both parties can play dirty, only to have Zoe state that she is ready to burn down the house, be it America or Academia. Cue heavy-handed lightning effects and an explosion. Blackout. Applause.
Is there any reason to see this dumpster fire? The Niceties enjoys two fine actresses delivering tour-de-force performances. Both Jordan Boatman as Zoe and Lisa Banes as Janine are excellent in their roles. Audience members were heard to praise the actresses in conversation and by hearty applause. Bravo to both women on an excellent job in a derivative play.
For further information on The Niceties, and to purchase tickets, visit www.mccarter.org .