Only days before I was to see Eleanor Burgess’s The Niceties at McCarter Theatre Center, I attended a local theater’s Oleanna, which—despite being in some ways an intriguing production—was, due largely to mad dog playwright David Mamet, an experience akin to bamboo growing under my fingernails.
Was I really ready, only days later, to re-enter the world of academic politics? I may be many things, but I’m not a masochist.
So I very nearly skipped The Niceties—but I’m so glad I didn’t. Eleanor Burgess’s thought-provoking, intelligent play was a balm to my wounded soul.
There are indeed marked similarities in the two works. Both are charged conversations between a student and a professor. In The Niceties, however, the two are female, and the nature of the tension is not sexual but more generally about the equally fraught topics of race, culture, and status. (The professor, Janine, is white; the student, Zoe, is black.)
The bigger difference, though, is in quality. The Niceties is immeasurably the better play, and a fine one on its own merits. Frankly, I haven’t the wherewithal to go through it in detail, but some of the many things Burgess gets right:
** To truly understand the nature of these conversations in the world of academia.
** To not oversimplify either character or argument.
** To recognize flaws and valid points on both sides.
** To actually allow the characters to speak eloquently and (sometimes, at least) respectfully with each other. Why, they even listen, not just talk!
None of these graces soften or undercut the play’s visceral power. Rather, they amplify it. The piece is also superbly served by its excellent production, elegantly directed by Kimberly Senior and featuring marvelously nuanced performances by Lisa Banes (Janine) and Jordan Boatman (Zoe).
See The Niceties, if you can. I have a feeling the show will make its way into regional theaters, so if you’re not able to get to McCarter, likely you’ll have a chance later.
Don’t just take my word for it. Let’s let the playwrights of both works have the last statement, shall we?
In The Niceties, Burgess draws her worthy argument to a close (think twice about reading if you’re planning to see it) as follows:
Zoe: You know what I hear when I listen to you?
Janine: Your own thoughts?
Zoe: A death rattle.
Mamet ends Oleanna by having John, the professor, knock Carol, the student, to the ground, while snarling, “you little cunt.” (Emphasis Mamet.)
You tell me—which one of these two is a playwright?
The Niceties plays through February 10. For more information, visit the McCarter Theatre Center website.
Categories: Criticism, New York, Philadelphia, Theater
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