The Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Eleanor Burgess’ “The Niceties” is a thoroughly enjoyable, thoughtful piece.
Set at an elite university in the northeast, it is the story of a white, female, history professor and an ambitious, black woman majoring in political science. They meet to discuss the latter’s paper on the American revolution, and the exchange rapidly takes them into discussions of race, privilege and generational attitudes. It gets ugly, and the premise that these sisters are on the same side in The Struggle rings hollow. Yet, somehow, it irritates because there was so much potential that went unrealized – it’s an “A” student handing in a C+ paper because it was easier.
The student, Zoe (Jordan Boatman), is drawn as a stereotypical Millennial, for whom Google is research and emotions must be validated. Hers is a world of micro-aggressions and safe spaces. Her professor, Janine (Lisa Banes), is a sixty-something baby-boomer with tenure and who believes that the good guys changed the world with their 1960s marches and sit-ins (they didn’t – there were just 6 years between Nixon and Reagan). The first act is devoted to the clash of the two most self-absorbed generations in history, a debate that generates a lot of heat and no light whatsoever.
It is handled more intelligently than a lot of similar exchanges we see in the media and pop culture. Their discussion of the nature of race and the history of America delves into some weighty material, but that is secondary to the interaction of the two women themselves.
When we get to the second act and discover that Zoe is not a kid from the projects but rather grew up on the mean streets of Westchester County, New York (Millionaire Acres) and that Janine is a lesbian, their characters show glimmers of a third dimension. Yet, that vital information doesn’t reach the audience for the first hour of the show. This is the theatrical equivalent of a journalist burying the lede. In doing so, Burgess takes us on the road more traveled, the less interesting one.
Burgess is certainly a brave and courageous playwright. She proves that in taking on these themes. Yet when it comes to the matter of class in America, she flinches – as do most Americans. Its almost complete absence from the clash of characters here is notable.
As for the performances themselves, Boatman and Banes delivered accurate portrayals. I disliked both characters almost immediately, and that is the reaction I have to such persons when I meet them in the real world. In other words, they get the characters right, and for an actor, there is no better measure of their efforts. Yet, one gets the feeling that director Kimberly Senior instructed both of them to turn up the volume to show their rage at The System. There is a great deal of shouting, but precious little of the cold, quiet anger that would have provided a more convincing counter-point to the shouting.
These are the things that hold the production back, that prevent a good production from being a great one. This is not a bad show by any stretch of the imagination. A great many people will almost certainly disagree with my assessment because what I am complaining about is what didn’t happen, choices that were not made.
Much like Zoe, the play doesn’t realize its full potential. Much like Jenine, perhaps I am taking issue with it for things that are not relevant.
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.
The Niceties is now playing at The Studio at Stage II, 131 West 55th Street, New York City, through November 18, 2018. For more information and tickets, visit the play’s website.