The Niceties

The title of this political drama by playwright Eleanor Burgess is ironic, as few niceties are demonstrated. Instead, the play, which had its opening night at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre on January 19 and runs through February 10, is an increasingly intense verbal duel between its two characters. As directed by Kimberly Senior, the tension never falters.

White college history professor Janine (played by Lisa Banes) is trying to help her African American student Zoe (Jordan Boatman) improve a paper that sets out a radical reinterpretation of the circumstances of the Revolutionary War. Janine isn’t willing to accept websites as authoritative sources, and Zoe isn’t willing to accept the conventional sources that ignore so much—regarding the lives of the slaves, especially.

They both make cogent arguments, but their disagreement is in part a matter of frame of reference. Janine is arguing from the point of view of a political historian, to whom the thoughts and actions of leaders who have left a paper trail constitute “history.” Zoe is arguing for more of a social history approach that includes the lives of all people, even those who did not and could not write their own stories. To Zoe, a few mentions of these other experiences won’t do it; she wants a panoramic approach that seeks to understand it all. The argument over Zoe’s essay soon turns personal and has significant fallout for them both.

Banes and Boatman have been doing this show since August, first at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, then at The Manhattan Theatre Club, and they have polished their performances to a fine degree. Banes epitomizes the condescension of the professor explaining how the world works, and Boatman the arrogance of youth, convinced that even her most extreme positions are true and right. As a result, the characters they play excel in talking past each other, and if there’s a profound message for society today, it’s the need to learn to listen, especially to people who view the world differently.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle bus into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two innovative new restaurants. For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Production photo: T. Charles Erickson

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