9/13/2018

Huntington's "The Niceties": Who Gets to Tell Herstory


Jordan Boatman & Lisa Banes in "The Niceties"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Peccavi.

With a single Latin word, playwright Eleanor Burgess has revealed what is at the core of her play The Niceties, the smashing season opener for Huntington Theatre Company (in association with Manhattan Theatre Club and McCarter Theatre Center): “I have sinned”. Spoken by the character of Janine (Lisa Banes), an established professor at a New England university (easily recognized in context, though not explicitly, as Yale) to her student Zoe (Jordan Boatman), it's a potent piece of paternalism rather begrudgingly offered up by a supposed mentor judging her student's proposed written thesis. It rings hollow both in substance and delivery, and this will come to be seen to be Burgess' intent. While this teacher is content to express a somewhat facile act of contrition, her mentee will have nothing of it. Thus begins an extraordinary battle of conflicting visions, one that might at first be dismissed as just another two-hander presenting two opposite views (similar to David Mamet's recent work Oleanna in theme if not structure), about just who should be the voice of a historically oppressed people. Who, in the end, gets to tell herstory, the academic or the activist, especially if the conditions for their oppression are not merely historic but persist, is the author's fundamental question.


Jordan Boatman & Lisa Banes in "The Niceties"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Excavating the source of that quest consumes this ninety-minute verbal joust, filled with quite a few excoriating jibes at the assumed presuppositions and preoccupations of encrusted academia. The playwright (a Brookline native) wastes little time on the niceties of this teacher/student confrontation; it's a contesting moment, rapidly delving into what lies beneath their mutual role playing. As an exploration (or exhumation) of tacitly accepted hypotheses, it's a mind-expanding verbal roller coaster that questions more than it answers. Superficially, the work may be appraised as an examination of two diametrically opposite theses, initiating with a rather esoteric treatment of the impact of moderate versus radical revolutions, but soon evolving into a consideration of the typical exclusion of minorities from the stories. Some of the dialog, especially that written for Janine, is as esoteric as this sounds, but Banes, with a healthy measure of self-deprecating humorous defense mechanisms, makes her equally repressed character mostly believable, even in a basic story that at times strains credulity. It's a measure of how fine the acting and tight direction (by Kimberly Senior) are; not only Banes but also Boatman manage to present two fascinatingly complex (and not particularly likable) opponents. Neither character is presented as right or wrong, but even when admitting having made mistakes, each has been carefully taut.


Lisa Banes & Jordan Boatman in "The Niceties"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

This production would be well worth attending just to see two consummate actors spar with the witty and wise creation by Burgess (a former Huntington Playwriting Fellow). But the creativity doesn't stop there. The Costume Design by Kara Harmon is ideal for the time (2016, as the national political debates were devolving) and the personalities presented by Banes and Boatman. The Lighting Design by D. M. Wood and Sound Design and Original Music by Elisheba Ittoop also contribute to the apt depiction of collegiate norms. But it is the Scenic Design by Cameron Anderson that grabs one from the first exposure to her slanted depiction of a more-than-slightly skewed, uneasily claustrophobic setting, every historical book artfully disarranged. If you've been paying attention to the d├ęcor, you might just realize what has gone missing from the set during intermission and tellingly reappears at the end.

So, do observe the niceties, at the Calderwood Pavilion in the South End, until October 6th.



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