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The Niceties

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - October 25, 2018

Jordan Boatman and Lisa Banes
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

So once upon a time, kids, there was this play called Oleanna. Mid-career David Mamet, it opened off-Broadway in 1992 and immediately caused a ruckus, both on its own merits and in light of the recent Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings. A two-hander, Oleanna centered on a college professor who is visited by a student who ends up accusing him of sexual harassment, on what some viewers considered skimpy evidence and others didn't. Misunderstandings escalate, violence erupts. Oleanna — either a warning about false charges acquiring popular credence or a rant from a privileged white male — probably sent more couples home furious at each other than any drama since A Doll's House. And now it's back. Only it's called The Niceties, and the perceived harassment isn't about sex, but race.

But the similarities between Mamet's play and Eleanor Burgess's are striking, and The Niceties, too, is likely to inspire hurt feelings and stubborn side-taking. Janine (Lisa Banes), a history professor, has a cluttered office — Cameron Anderson did the convincing set, marked by stacks of books, like Dane Laffrey's for Apologia. Office hours are on, and the current visitor is Zoe (Jordan Boatman), a smart junior defending her paper. Her thesis — "a successful American Revolution was only possible because of the existence of slavery" — is, Janine agrees, original and imaginative and thoughtful. And wrong. Teacher and student are polite, respectful of each other — those, we gather, are the niceties — and relishing the back-and-forth of ideas. Until they're not.

Burgess cleverly ratchets up the tension, with Janine maintaining her white-privilege poise as long as she can, and Zoe, being of her social media-savvy generation and into instant gratification, challenging and interrupting her at every turn. Burgess wants us to see them as equals, and doesn't entirely succeed. She writes, interestingly, in her author's note, "Conflicts between good and evil can be fun fodder for action films. But I'm more intrigued by times when smart, well-meaning people, with great values and the best intentions, fundamentally can't agree."

Yes, it's a provocative, drama-packed premise — how right is Janine, how right is Zoe, and can they find any common ground? But to this privileged white male, the balance starts tipping in Janine's direction, and more often than not stays there. "Great values and the best intentions"? Zoe, as she admits, is there for a good grade and nothing more, and doesn't have time to do the rewrite Janine demands because she has too much else going on — she's protesting Howard Stern, attending a police reform rally, and organizing a revolt against Sandra Day O'Connor, who's visiting campus and doesn't have the strongest record on affirmative action.

The play of ideas starts careening out of control. The discussion turns into shouting, and Boatman talks faster and faster, divulging well-worded opinions she can't possibly have come up with on the spur of the moment. If she just slowed down, maybe we could track her reasoning better. Janine, meanwhile, in Banes's calm, well-calibrated performance, is a voice of relative reason, to these ears at least.

Zoe, she advises, needs primary sourcing to back up her thesis — something practically impossible, as how many slaves in 1775 were literate, or able to openly voice their emotions. Is that fair? Certainly not. But Janine feels that just an "I know they felt that way" from Zoe is not enough, and Zoe resents that, deeply — deeply enough to plunge on a mutually destructive course of action that results in a second act much like Oleanna's, with both parties' lives damaged, and the possibility of any accord between them increasingly remote.

Sure, Zoe can feel things in her bones that Janine can't — though it's revealed, in an elegant striptease of exposition, Janine knows something of unfair discrimination, too. Zoe makes some excellent points, and of course it's presumptuous and condescending of people from other backgrounds to assure her they know how she feels; they don't. But she's a kid, and by the time she's surreptitiously taping Janine's comments to post on social media, it's hard to stay on her side.

Kimberly Senior's direction has some fine touches, like the way Zoe ends up sitting in Janine's chair later in the proceedings, a subtle illustration of an evolving transfer of power. But the three-sided seating area in Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage II is a little awkward, and no matter where you sit, you'll miss some important character reactions. Senior, further, might have toned down Boatman's volume and hysteria to bring a more equal weight to both arguments. Zoe is a brilliant and passionate young woman, battling an inequitable society and likely to coax much-needed change out of institutions that highly resist it. But in Boatman's caterwauling, and in Burgess' constant pitting of Janine's measured responses against Zoe's unhinged fury, The Niceties isn't doing the disenfranchised viewpoint any favors.

The Niceties
Through November 18
Manhattan Theatre Club at Stage II, 131 West 55th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: