By Eleanor Burgess; Directed by Kimberly Senior
Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 11.18.18
New York City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street
by Ken Kaissar on 11.6.18
Jordan Boatman and Lisa Banes in The Niceties. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
BOTTOM LINE: A nuanced and intriguing new play about racial bias that is intellectually stimulating and emotionally provocative.
Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties is easily the most intelligent play I’ve seen this year. As in David Mamet’s Oleanna, there is a professor vs. student conflict. Only now, the teacher is also a woman and the student is black: questions of racial bias and prejudice take the place of gender politics and sexual harassment. Not surprisingly, the questions Burgess raises around race are infinitely more complex and sophisticated than those around sex and gender in Mamet's play. The NIceties requires a keen ear and sharp mind to follow the intricate arguments that develop during a common grade dispute.
When Zoe (Jordan Boatman) consults with her acclaimed history professor Janine (Lisa Banes) about a grade on a paper, she confesses that she lacks the necessary time to improve it, due to her busy schedule as an activist and protestor. She tries to convince her teacher that her observations about slavery are valid even though she can’t prove them because ample slave testimonials have not been archived by white historians. As Janine debates her student, her subtle biases and prejudices are exposed, giving Zoe the ammunition necessary to threaten her career.
Burgess takes her time developing and building arguments with which to arm her characters. With neither character presented as “right” or “wrong,” the debate is invigorating and exciting. As Burgess states in her author’s note, “I’m more intrigued . . . when smart, well-meaning people, with great values and the best intentions, fundamentally can’t agree on the right way to behave.” Their values and good intentions don’t make these characters any less vicious and bloodthirsty. Because Burgess delivers a well-matched battle of formidable opponents, the play never devolves into a massacre.
By the time the cut-throat battle rears its head, the dispute has been so meticulously laid out that one can equally appreciate both perspectives. Unlike the complaints of Mamet’s Carol, Zoe’s claims seem undeniably real and legitimate, and we never have to wonder if she is simply out for blood. As an African American, Zoe has been wronged by history and demands justice. The only plot point that feels rushed is the speed with which Janine caves to accusations of racism.
Director Kimberly Senior creates the sense that she is intentionally staying out of the characters’ way for fear of being trampled. The play feels like a quarrel between two people much smarter than ourselves; we are delighted to listen in, and relieved that the characters don’t know we’re there. The intellects of Burgess’s characters are as intimidating as a deliberation between members of the Supreme Court.
Though the play is presented in MTC’s smallest studio, no expense is spared on Cameron Anderson’s gorgeous set design, which captures the elegance and prestige of an Ivy League professor’s hard-earned office. And Banes and Boatman are masterful in their performances. As the professor, Banes nurtures her student with warmth while pushing her to realize her full potential. Her good intentions make her demise especially hard to watch. And Boatman exudes the confidence and intelligence to fully indulge her mentor’s line of argument without an ounce of pettiness. Her vicious threats are only deployed when necessary. The result is a battle of intelligence and academic politics that will stimulate the intellect and make you want to scream all at the same time.
It’s not often that such a dense and intellectual play makes its way onto the stage. Not only should you run to see it before it closes, but I would recommend buying a copy to take home so you can examine the character’s arguments with the time and attention they deserve.
(The Niceties plays at City Center's Stage II, 131 West 55th Street, through November 18, 2018. The running time is 2 hours with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2:30 and 7:30; and Sundays at 2:30 and 7:30. Tickets are $35 and are available at nycitycenter.org or by calling 212-581-1212. For more information visit manhattantheatreclub.com.)
The Niceties is by Eleanor Burgess. Directed by Kimberly Senior. Set Design by Cameron Anderson. Costume Design by Kara Harmon. Lighting Design by D.M. Wood. Original Music and Sound Design by Elisheba Itoop. Stage Manager is Libby Unsworth.
The cast is Lisa Banes and Jordan Boatman.