Sunday, November 17, 2019

Both Sides Now: I Generally Have Good Things to Say About 'The Niceties' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Niceties
a recent play by Eleanor Burgess
Directed by Marti Lyons
Writers Theatre, Glencoe, IL
Thru December 8

A smart, thought-provoking play can almost always feel relevant, even decades after being written.

Perhaps this is particularly true for a “two-hander,” a play with just two characters, whose dialogue often inherently constitutes an argument or debate, which ideally can have audience members taking, but then changing, sides, sometimes by the sentence.

Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties is a two-hander, which deftly—if at times a bit too calculatedly—feels like a closely-contested tennis or boxing match.

Chronicling a conversation that becomes confrontational between a well-regarded mature, white, female, feminist, left-leaning history professor and a politicized millennial student who feels her perspective as a young African-American woman isn’t being properly respected, the work theoretically should retain its resonance for many years to come.

But it is a new play, one that Burgess first wrote in the Spring of 2016, and in finalizing it after the election of Donald Trump that November, decided to keep it set earlier in 2016, before the successor to Barack Obama had been determined.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
But while I would say he’s exacerbated it, President Trump did not create the racial divide in this country, and with some knowing winks to what has transpired since 2016, The Niceties—which was first staged in 2018—certainly does feel topical.

Even more so for me given that—without knowing the subject matter of the play, which I would see Wednesday night at Glencoe’s stellar Writers Theatre—just this week I had done some Googling to learn more about the “OK Boomer” memes that has members of Generation Y (which comes after the Millennial Generation) razzing older folks for disparaging or belittling them.

Certainly the concerns Zoe (well-played here by Ayanna Bria Bakari) raises to Janine (the typically excellent Mary Beth Fisher) are more substantive than generational disconnect, but it was interesting to see the play just days after I became more tuned into the schism. (I happen to be a white, suburban Gen Xer, in many ways more in concert with those my age and older, but hoping to understand younger generations and deferential to those of differing backgrounds.)

And while theatrically, The Niceties reminded me of David Mamet’s professor-student two-hander, Oleanna, and Thomas Gibbons’ fine Permanent Collection, which also focuses on race-hinged misunderstandings among seemingly decent, sensitive, open-minded people, it mostly made me think of John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons.

In that incisive one-man show, Leguizamo shrewdly notes how the preponderance of U.S. History having been written by white men has substantially shortchanged the contributions and vantage points of Latinos and other minorities.

So in having read reviews of the play’s past stagings—initially in Boston, NYC and L.A. under the direction of Kimberly Senior, who has helmed many Chicago shows including at Writers, though the current production is directed by Marti Lyons—and then perusing the substantive articles surrounding The Niceties in the current production’s program, I was really quite eager to take in what it had to say.

Which, at the very least, was perceptive and penetrating.

The set-up is that Zoe, a pupil in Janine’s class focusing on historical revolutions (presumably at Yale, though it’s never quite specified) has come during office hours to discuss a term paper she has written.

I don’t believe it’s a “thesis,” per se, as Zoe is an undergrad, but that word is tossed around.

As best I understood, Zoe’s supposition is that rather than representing a radical movement toward democracy, the American Revolution was less universal an upheaval as it kept whites in power while blacks remained slaves.

I will be discreet about detailing their discussion, but in being initially dismissive of Zoe’s gist, Janine—supposedly a progressive thinker whose office walls (in a nice set design by Courtney O’Neill) includes posters depicting Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Emilio Zapata and George Washington—comes across as a mouthpiece for the patriarchal establishment, unwilling to hear near ideas challenging past slights. 

But as the discussion continues, Janine’s objections become more—understandingly, to a degree—academic.

She wants Zoe to incorporate sources supporting her arguments, and not just websites based in conjecture. To which Zoe counters that voices of the marginalized and oppressed weren’t often recorded for history.

This, like many of the points Zoe makes, seems valid. And while I felt Janine--through the words of writer Burgess, which didn't always seem to me what an experienced and savvy professor might say--comes of less sympathetically in the macro, she largely holds her own.

Artfully if imperfectly, The Niceties feels like a heated discussion and an argument, not a smackdown and surrender.

To the credit of Burgess, director Lyons and the two actresses, my attention was strongly held across nearly two hours, minus intermission.

And not only is much of the conversation shrewd, it's also--admirably--discomfiting, even to an avowed liberal like me, and those who appreciate, study and/or teach history.

Given that someone--Native Americans, women, indigenous people of many lands, immigrants from everywhere, African-Americans, Jews, homosexuals, etc., etc., etc.--has always suffered under the boot heel of somebody else, with it being either supported, condoned or conveniently ignored, it's hard to celebrate anyone in American or world history without, as Janine notes in the play, running through an untenable stream of disclaimers.

So as I said at top, The Niceties is certainly a smart play. And a good one.

But while truly admiring much of Burgess conceit and writing, I think there are times when what both characters do and say seems unrealistic.

Zoe arrives at Janine's office expecting positive feedback so the vitriol she works up so eloquently and expeditiously seems a bit extreme, and even in being put on the defensive, the character of Janine says things I'm not sure such a person might. Not to imply that anyone, no matter how seemingly admirable and progressive, can't have ugly moments and aspects, but The Niceties occasionally feels too much like a dramatic encounter and not a real one.

Still, it's timely, relevant, quite good and well-worth your attention. If nothing else, it should make you think about how "history" becomes so.

1 comment:

Hemingway1955 said...

With humanity it just seems that the more things change...the more they stay the same.