A Black Student and a White Professor Weigh The Niceties Against What They Really Feel
Eleanor Burgess's confrontational new play makes its New York debut at MTC.
Now that bombs seem to be daily passing through the United States Postal Service, it feels like the bonds of trust that keep debate from spiraling into violence have broken down. If you're wondering how we got here, Eleanor Burgess has some ideas in The Niceties. Her infuriating, provocative, and thoroughly exhilarating new play is currently receiving its New York debut with Manhattan Theatre Club. At the very least, it helps explain why so many Americans adopt a sour expression when speaking about the Ivy League.
The Niceties takes place in the spring of 2016 at an elite institution of higher learning on a gothic campus situated somewhere in Connecticut (sound familiar?). Janine Bosko (Lisa Banes) was one of the first women to graduate from the university, and now she is a superstar history professor. Zoe Reed (Jordan Boatman) is an undergraduate student in her class on revolutions. She's written a paper arguing that the American Revolution was only possible through the institution of slavery. Janine, who is white, sees 1776 as a great success, having avoided the radical phase that followed similar revolutions in France and Russia. But Zoe, who is black, feels that this revolution was afforded on the backs of her people, and they have yet to reap the rewards. Janine suggests that there aren't enough primary sources to support Zoe's thesis, to which Zoe retorts that there's a reason for that: Slaves weren't allowed to write letters. Matters escalate quickly as an academic argument becomes deeply personal.
It's easy to see why Zoe loses her cool. As played by Banes, Janine drips with practiced condescension. She's also acidly funny: When Zoe asks her to hear and validate what she has to say, she responds, "I'm not going to validate you. You're not a parking ticket," as she goes on to lecture her young pupil on how the real world works.
With a catch in her voice and authentic nervous energy emanating from her body, Boatman lends a degree of sympathy to an otherwise loathsome character: Zoe doesn't want any criticism from her professor; she keeps a detailed record of "things I shouldn't have to hear" in her lectures; and she believes that the people who say these things ought to be punished. Recognizing she can't win on the merits of her argument, Zoe turns to the favorite tactic of the young, woke, and privileged: extortion via the threat of public shaming.
Given the choice between the smug liberal and the humorless Jacobin, it's easy to see why so many Americans dismiss the Ivy League entirely. Yet most people in the audience do take a side, whether due to the biases we bring into the room or an authorial thumb on the scale. It's tempting to label the character of Zoe an easily vanquished millennial straw man except that she is thoroughly representative of the self-styled martyrs currently peopling elite American universities. "You're a student here, okay," says Janine, gesturing to the floor in grand exasperation, "You have one of the best lives of anybody in history ever. Ever." And, of course, she's right. Yet I have no doubt that some audience members will side with Zoe, seeing her fashionable intolerance and terrorist threats as perfectly justified in a society as thoroughly corrupted as ours.
Director Kimberly Senior allows no slack within this two-act edge-of-you-seat drama. Even with an intermission, Senior, Banes, and Boatman magnificently ramp it back up again for Act 2 — and we are grateful for a breather to allow us to process what we've just witnessed.
The design supports the performances without getting in the way: Kara Harmon's costumes account for generational difference without being too obvious about it. D.M. Wood's natural lighting streams through a gothic window in Cameron Anderson's detailed set. Anderson depicts Janine's office as a literal playpen of ideas, with stacks of book scattered around the floor. That messy openness becomes more guarded in the second act, as the loose tomes hide against the wall. It is ironic that Zoe's paper is for a class on revolutions. Obviously, they haven't yet reached the chapter about reactionary movements. But the lonely Hillary mug on Janine's desk reminds us where we're going.
Burgess has written a play that is as intellectually stimulating as it is blood-boiling. The Niceties is about racism, classism, elite myopia, the DIY surveillance state, and the devolution of the American conversation into a ritualistic cycle of group thought expressed through sharable "think pieces." Most of all, it's about the zero-sum style of debate that requires us to destroy our opponents and never consider that we might be wrong. While today that impulse has found its quintessential expression in President Donald Trump, it existed in the American psyche long before he arrived on the scene. The rush of adrenaline that comes with such confrontation is an addiction that may well prove impossible to kick.