The Niceties

September 27, 2018

in Plays

Play (2018)
by Eleanor Burgess

World Premiere
Directed by Kimberly Senior

Huntington Theatre Company
Boston Center for the Arts
South End, Boston
August 31 – October 6, 2018

Scenic Design: Cameron Anderson; Lighting Design: D.M. Wood; Original Music and Sound Design: Elisheba Ittoop

With Lisa Banes (Janine), Jordan Boatman (Zoe)

Zoe Janine

Jordan Boatman as Zoe
Lisa Banes as Janine
in “The Niceties”
Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Courtesy of Huntington Theatre Company

A searing two-woman university drama pitting an African-American student against her middle-aged white English professor.

Zoe (Jordan Boatman), an African-American student of the landed middle-aged professor of English, Janine (Lisa Banes), comes to Janine’s office to discuss a paper and gets a rap on the fingers. Initially, though appropriately, even extensively, solicitous and overflowing with the eponymous niceties, Zoe undergoes a subtly imposing display of power by Janine until Zoe finally cracks and turns when Janine makes an offhand comment that radiates their imbalance of power. From then on, Janine stands behind her shield as Zoe lambastes her with every erg of racially-prompted rage she has at her disposal. The denouement is fascinatingly bizarre, invoking the niceties once again, this time with a defensive tilt from the other end.

There’s nothing nice in this academic office drama except for the introductory exchange which is intentionally superficial and only nice in a weird way. At the end, when, in a reversal, the attempt at niceties returns, it becomes vividly clear that the thin layer of diplomacy is all about conciliation and the appeal to power. As the power shifts dramatically and forcefully, the urge to niceness derives from the opposite pole.

There is the same kind of reversal in this word-filled but well-written play as there is in David Mamet’s more typically truncated set of exchanges in Oleanna (1992), a play about a faceoff between an older professor and a young student. In that play, difference of sex and how it affects power becomes the fulcrum,, rather than, as is the case here, race, but the charged rhythm of exchanges and reversals anticipates much of the same in The Niceties. Mamet’s writing is typically truncated and phrasal whereas Burgess’ is opulent and discursive, so the verbal vehicle is different, as is the specific fulcrum of the conflict, but they share some of the same dramatic terrain.

The offering of pleasantries at the outset, given the degree of rage that we come to see Zoe holding within, is odd and oddly revealing, seeming at once disingenuous and perfectly suited to the imbalance of power the situation represents. True to conventional forms of academic deference, the depiction rings quite true, while, in this dramatic context, is exercised to the extreme, seeming, at times, like a setup for the tirade and the return of the power dance which follow.

Both actresses offer powerful and articulate performances, running down their word-walls with grace and with nary a hesitation. Lisa Banes, as Janine, is self-possessed to the point of sliminess in her power-stance, and submissive to the point of unctuousness in her inverted recapitulation. Jordan Boatman, as Zoe, is intense, vivid, articulate and effectively rageful.

There are plenty of pointed and memorable lines. You don’t have a normal adult human job, says Zoe in response to Janine, a wonderful poke at academia. It’s not enough for you to be right or to be good, says Zoe to Janine once again, you must give up your power! Set in the early fall of 2016, the play both winks and cries as Janine declares We’re about to have our first female president!

The beautifully rendered recreation of an academic office interior by Cameron Anderson, supplemented by lighting design by D.M. Wood and interesting musical selections by Elisheba Ittoop, fills out the setting nicely. A focal portrait of George Washington central to the decor, then removed, becomes a silent emblem of the developing conflict.

One might see a shortcoming of the narrative in its somewhat obvious setup and its directly reactive playing out in rebellious rant. Though that dramatic dance is nicely drawn, it’s conceived as a two step rather than as a waltz, and moves from one extreme to the other with determination but without much nuance. Though making its point forcefully and articulately, its plotted steps might have benefited from a bit more bend and sway.

– BADMan

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