A portrait of George Washington hangs prominently on the wall of an award-winning historian and history professor’s office in “The Niceties,” Eleanor Burgess’s timely and intelligently provocative play at McCarter Theater through Sunday, February 10.
Surrounding it are pictures of Nelson Mandela, Pancho Villa, Lech Walesa, and others who championed democracy in their native lands.
In a lecture, the historian, an expert in the American Revolution and revolution in general, states America was lucky to have Washington and Thomas Jefferson as two of its first three presidents.
An undergraduate disagrees. She says having Washington’s image offends her and makes her feel unwelcome and unsafe in the historian’s office and at the Ivy League university in which it is situated. Lauding Washington and Jefferson adds insult and a galling want of empathy to the wound her sensibility has sustained via the portrait.
She wants Washington removed from her presence and from the institution. She objects to what she regards as his patrimony and to him being revered as a hero when he was a holder of slaves.
Thus “The Niceties” puts a crucial controversy and conflict flaring today on stage.
The dialectic skirmish between teacher and student over Washington is only one example Burgess offers to exhibit the current and expanding gulf regarding the way American history is viewed and told, particularly when race, gender, sexual preference, age, generation, politics, and trigger issues figure into the telling.
The playwright deftly and serially sets up arguments and disagreements, some familiar, that lead to clashes and discord. While it may look as if she is broaching obvious and long-tread issues and quarrels, Burgess accomplishes exponentially more by placing intense, divergent attitudes before you so they can be examined, close up, with meticulous clarity and a shrewd way of giving both sides some due.
Equally significant, she addresses headier stuff than showing adversaries and their points of view at odds. “The Niceties” is an important play. It employs the simple tack of having philosophical opponents make recognizable cases while delving deeper into seminal issues.
That includes an historian’s need to authenticate assertions by reference to original and indisputable sources; and the virtue of civil discourse over emotional diatribe, uses and shifts of personal power, a difference between negotiated policy and shrill manifesto, a distinction between reasonable and unrealistic demands, the dividing line between justice and revenge, the palliative effect of compromise, today’s immediate means of stirring public opinion via social media, and wanton, perhaps reckless, use of threats.
It’s all there, swirling between and within the lines professor and undergraduate use to make their cases.
Revolution and its repercussions are at the core of the historian’s study. Burgess, in “The Niceties,” does no less than plainly show today’s cultural revolution in immediate action, including the effects it may have if emotion, unchecked populism, and the unrealistic hold sway.
The writing and presentation are more than rich. Burgess endows both of her characters with intelligence and the ability to make points worthy of discussion and further consideration. Though tension is always palpable, and extreme behavior by one character or another is feared, teacher and student exercise enough control to keep focus on ideas and attitudes being raised rather than becoming unduly temperamental or physically violent. Burgess also demonstrates skill in introducing characters’ personal traits, including ethnicity, into the story.
“The Niceties” encapsulates the debate America needs to have before basic standards erode to extinction, and sentimentality runs amok.
My only cavil with Burgess’s script is her providing too handy a reason why the student may be so committed to her stances and the belief they will attract a following. Youth, naivety, fervor, and untempered emotion seem motivation enough. Adding more, especially a concrete revelation fairly late in the proceedings, creates an excuse that mitigates and weakens what we see. It’s a softening that panders and protects more than it enhances.
In general, Burgess deserves a lot of congratulations for crafting a piece that is so needed and so smart. Director Kimberly Senior and the McCarter cast, Lisa Banes and Jordan Boatman, share those congratulations.
Senior’s production is taut and blessed with a tempo that gives both reasonable conversation and bitter enmity a chance to register. Senior’s clean staging leaves room for all that Burgess packs into “The Niceties” to come to light. It strikes the right notes to allow dialogue to do its job by never letting it seem as if the characters are playing verbal ping-pong, serving up a thought to be met with a rejoinder. Burgess’ words and the conflict they cause come across naturally via the canny acting of Banes and Boatman.
Lisa Banes is extraordinary in the way she keeps the historian poised, even when provoked or rattled, and ready to present a quiet, measured case.
Banes’ professor takes one bold, aggressive step, understandable in context, but in general combines cool reasonable expression with a warm, passionate regard for her work, herself, and the student she sincerely believes she is helping.
Jordan Boatman has an impressive knack for combining the student’s smug pride and confidence with a sense of humor. Her smirks are not all indications of contempt or a feeling she is the one in control of all situations. Boatman provides a sense that the student enjoys the confrontation and is genuinely amused even when she’s aware she’s walking into danger or about to erupt like an angry volcano. There’s a laugh in Boatman’s perceptive eyes that adds interest to her character.
The pictures of Washington, Mandela, Walesa, and Villa are all part of a handsome set by Cameron Anderson that uses a sharp-angled dormer, bright white paint, books on shelves and floors, and a marvelously carved, strategically placed window to create a setting that is both traditionally academic and contemporarily sophisticated.
Kara Harmon has a good eye for dressing both the historian and the student. D.M. Wood’s lighting subtly underscores moods.
The Niceties, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through Sunday, February 10. $25 to $90. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.