History and race as a battleground in ‘The Niceties’
What is American history?
Is it an inspirational story of a nation that willed itself into existence against supremely long odds, then enshrined democracy as a beacon to the rest of the world? Or is it a blood-soaked narrative of exploitation and injustice built on an underpinning of racism that has tainted, even defined, the enterprise at every step of the way?
Those, roughly speaking, are the opposing viewpoints that are exhaustively, even exhaustingly, thrashed out in “The Niceties,’’ a didacticism-prone but provocative and blisteringly smart play by Brookline native Eleanor Burgess.
Burgess generates a verbal whirlwind with a words-per-minute velocity that rivals Aaron Sorkin. She possesses some Sorkinesque strengths (such as a knack for distilling complex ideas into conversational showdowns that are both absorbing and revealing) as well as weaknesses (a tendency to indulge in overly fact-choked monologues). You might feel drained by the end of Burgess’s searing two-character drama, which is directed at full throttle by Kimberly Senior in a world-premiere Huntington Theatre Company production. But who ever said theater should be relaxing?
That Burgess has something to say and the writerly craft to say it was evident from last year’s world premiere at Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre of her “Chill,’’ an astutely drawn portrait of millennials knocked off-balance by the unexpected challenges life throws their way and gripped by panic that, though not yet 30, it might already be too late for them.
In “The Niceties,’’ Burgess ventures onto much more socially charged territory, exploring questions of race, power, language, generational conflict, and the tricky matter of identity politics. The play is also about the difficulty of being heard, in the fullest sense. Indeed, the word “hear’’ (or “heard’’ or “hearing’’) crops up nearly two dozen times in Burgess’s script, and the image of hearing is central to the finale of “The Niceties.’’ Its protagonists talk past each other and have enormous difficulty hearing each other.
“The Niceties’’ takes place at a fraught moment: early 2016, the last year of the Barack Obama administration, with Donald Trump closing in on the Republican presidential nomination. Zoe (a superb Jordan Boatman) is a 20-year-old black student in her junior year at what is described as “an elite university in the Northeast.’’ She has come to the book-crammed office of Janine (Lisa Banes, also excellent), a white professor in her early 60s, to hear the professor’s feedback on her paper about George Washington and the American Revolution. A large portrait of Washington hangs on the wall. By the start of Act 2, that portrait will have disappeared, for reasons that have everything to do with what transpires in Act 1 of “The Niceties.’’
Janine clearly loves the sound of her own voice and savors no less the taste of her own erudition; that she has spent a lifetime in academia is abundantly clear. Zoe at first evinces an undergraduate’s eagerness to please as the professor points out flaws in her paper’s grammatical structure. But conflict erupts between the two when Janine homes in on the paper’s substance, calling it “fundamentally unsound.’’ Zoe’s theory is that the US had a unified and “moderate’’ revolution rather than a radical revolution that would address economic inequality because “the people who were really suffering, who would have become radicals, were the slaves. And everybody else, upper-middle-class white people and poor white people, were pretty happy with the way things were. . . . It’s easier to be pro-equality when there’s a subjugated minority in your midst.’’
This is starkly at odds with Janine’s idealistic interpretation of the Revolution’s animating spirit and enduring importance, as well as her view of its leaders as fundamentally heroic figures. The professor has a pedagogue’s faith in books and primary sources, in texts you can lay your hand on. Zoe trusts her own empathy and experiences; she contends that the truth of human feelings (such as the despair a female slave might have felt) and motivations (such as the role racism might have played in the deliberations of a delegate to the constitutional convention) is often not written down.
Their duel of ideas widens and escalates into a contest of wills that becomes more and more personal and heated, as the professor’s arrogance collides with the student’s absolutism. After one of them takes a certain covert action, Janine’s career is suddenly on the line. Act 2 of “The Niceties’’ explores the fallout from that action, and also peels back a couple of layers to reveal more about who Janine and Zoe are behind the talking points. Boatman and Banes both find the nuances in their characters, conveying the occasional cracks within their seeming certitude.
And Burgess? After seeing “The Niceties,’’ I feel the same way I felt after seeing “Chill’’: Eager to see — and hear — what she writes next.
Play by Eleanor Burgess. Directed by Kimberly Senior. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through Oct. 6. Tickets from $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org