Theater Review: “The Niceties” — A Gentle Slap Awake?

The Niceties gives us an invaluable opportunity to hover outside of the current political debate about race and American history.

The Niceties by Eleanor Burgess. Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. Set design by Judy Gailen. Costume design by Anna Grywalski. Lighting designed by Devorah Kengmana. Sound design by Sadah Espii Proctor. Staged by Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave, Portland, ME, through April 22.

Alexis Green and Susan Knight in the Portland Stage production of “The Niceties.” Photo: Aaron Flacke.

By David Greenham

The thing is….” veteran tenured history professor Janine Bosko (Susan Knight) says part way through the first act of The Niceties. She is abruptly cut off by student Zoe Reed (Alexis Green), who emphatically snaps, “I don’t need you to explain what ‘the thing’ is!” Neither do we: the thing, in this case, is the trauma of race and American history. Eleanor Burgess’s new drama is about who creates our idea of the past. The standard line is that those in power do and, in the case of America, that means they’re white.

Set in Bosko’s bookcase filled office on the campus of “an elite university in the Northeast,” The Niceties is clearly a debate play, a talky tennis match. It is set in the spring of 2016, during the tumultuous months when the GOP was winnowing its herd of presidential candidates down to one surprising (!) finalist. The Democrats’ internal battles were solidifying into what would become a fait accompli. Aside from a mention that America has elected its first African American president — and will follow that up by voting in its first woman president — very little time is spent on the current political scene. (There is one nicely ironic moment. Bosko explains she’s glad that “the GOP is hopelessly divided; otherwise the results would be dire.” The line draws a knowing and slightly uncomfortable laugh from the audience.)

No, the focus of this battle of tongues is on America’s racist past. Zoe, a ‘poli sci’ major, has come to her professor’s office with a draft of a paper that argues that the American Revolution wasn’t really revolution at all — just shift of power from one group of white men to another. “Whites in the revolution were unified about slavery,” she asserts, “in that they didn’t really care about slavery.”

Bosko pushes back, pointing to the need for primary source material to support Zoe’s theory. Do your research, she demands, “You need to get some big, heavy books from the library” she says, exuding a condescending gleam of academic elitism, “the idea of a university is expertise.” Without proof, this premise is just guesswork and provocative assumption.

The sparring in The Niceties careens from assumption to assumption, a lot of them  based on what we can realistically expect from primary source documents. As Zoe points out, people who couldn’t write and didn’t have any money left scant evidence of their existence. In the view of historians, these people tend to vanish; they may have suffered in ways we can’t understand because their trials and tribulations were not recorded. What’s heartbreaking about the power struggle in The Niceties is that there’s so little common ground in the tussle between the expert history professor and the determined undergrad. “This is pain that we should share,” Zoe demands. She’s right. We don’t share it. No amount of education can make me, as a white male, know what it’s like to wake up every morning as a person of color. So we need to listen. But we don’t do that very well.

'The Niceties' is clearly trying to get us to sit forward and listen hard. A genial slap for the effort is better than nothing.Click To Tweet

Burgess’ bold play has its flaws, but it’s taking on an important task, especially given that the majority of the current American theater-going audience is white, middle-aged and leans, vaguely, to the left. Are patrons of the arts ready to have their racism pointed out? We’ll see. For me, Burgess is gentler on Bosko and the educational establishment than they deserve. But the dramatist is clearly trying to get us to sit forward and listen hard. A genial slap for the effort is better than nothing.

As the sometimes flustered yet well-prepared tenured professor, Knight tiptoes along a fine line, veering between the compassionate and pompous. She relishes the ‘home-field’ advantage in her snug part of the ivory tower. Yet her arguments mostly fall flat. Eventually, after she’s called out for her “bullshit credentialism,” the academic finds that she is out of ammunition and resorts to saying regrettable things.

Burgess is clearly on the side of student Reed who, in the agile hands of Alexis Green, mitigates the character’s anger and frustration with infusions of passion, even hope. Reed’s arguments peel away at layers of guilt, eventually hitting raw nerves that hurt.

Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian keeps the conversation flowing, although far too often she highlights Reed on the attack and Bosko on the defensive. Perhaps as a way to make the two combatants uncomfortable, the desk at the center of the stage often serves as a table, with one of the characters sitting at either end. This is a strange set-up: is it a choice Bosko makes to create a level playing field? It’s unclear, but the ironic result is that Reed accumulates all the dramatic power in act two, and that cuts down on the confrontation’s dramatic resonance.

Judy Gailen provides a lovely background, if a little too clean and bland. Anna Grywalski’s costumes and Devorah Kengmana’s lighting reflect the period and place without calling attention to themselves. Only Sadah Espii Proctor’s sound strikes a discordant note. Classical music gives way at the intermission to a kind of electronic trance music. A somewhat obvious (and lazy) choice of R&B music at the end serves up such lyrics as “Freedom, freedom, freedom, set me free.”

The Niceties was developed at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in West Virginia in July and received its first workshopping at Portland Stage last spring. In her notes about selecting the script for the company’s current season, Artistic Director Anita Stewart writes that the play “lets us inside a discussion we typically see only when we are squarely in the middle of it ourselves, or after it has exploded ferociously onto the pages of the daily newspapers or a twitter feed.” This script gives us an invaluable opportunity to hover outside of the current political fray, watching both perspectives go at it. This ‘liberal’ dialogue is undoubtedly necessary, but Burgess suggests that no one on either side really comes away clean.

David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.

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