Eleanor Burgess’ incendiary play about race and generational conflict, “The Niceties,” represents several milestones for Hoboken’s Mile Square Theatre, where the show runs through April 17. It marks the company’s return to a live indoor setting after a two-year COVID hiatus, as well as the first production under MST’s new artistic director, Kevin R. Free.
Set in 2016 — the last year of the Obama presidency, as a roomful of Republicans jostle each other to the right seeking their party’s nomination — “The Niceties” manages to tackle a timely hot-button issue while also frequently seeming as dated as the ’90-centric “Rent.”
The play lets its two actors — MST regular Annie McAdams as Janine Bosko, a history professor at a prestigious university, and DeAnna Supplee as her student, Zoe Reed — go at it for nearly two hours, providing a galvanizing contrast of generations, backgrounds, expectations and, of course, races. It’s thought-provoking, never boring, frequently upsetting, and yet ultimately disappointing, because while the performances, John Eric Scutchins’ direction and Emmett Grosland’s set merit praise, the play itself seems more about two opposing points of view than two human beings.
The women meet during office hours to discuss Zoe’s term paper on slavery and its effect on the Revolutionary War. Janine is an esteemed history professor who studies and teaches about revolutions, advises the State Department on international insurrections, and has a large poster of George Washington adorning the wall of her book-filled office. Zoe is a stressed-out millennial who tries to fit in her classwork between her busy schedule of political protests and grassroots organization.
At first, the conversation hews affable, helpful, respectful: the “niceties” of teacher/student symbiosis, as it were. Janine corrects grammar, questions footnotes (“www.revolutionarywar.com?”) and grabs books off her well-stocked shelves to provide anecdotes that might illuminate the paper.
But then Janine questions the paper’s thesis — that the Revolutionary War wouldn’t have succeeded in establishing the world’s first permanent democracy without racism and slavery — and Zoe pushes back. She calls Washington “a racist monster” for keeping slaves and questions how Janine could hang his image on her wall, knowing how that makes black people feel. She demands a participation trophy B+ so she can qualify for a fellowship that will facilitate her career goals, regardless of her paper’s merit.
Janine, for her part, reeks of Ivy League condescension and noblesse oblige, convinced that her decades of scholarship render her fit to interpret not only history, but humanity as well. They come from two different worlds. When Janine blithely remarks that Zoe “simply must see” Amsterdam sometime, as Janine did as a college student, Zoe replies that Janine needs to visit Ferguson, Mo., as she did over her summer break.
And so it goes: Janine championing the traditional liberal ideal of American democracy despite its flaws, and Zoe demanding that the whole system be torn down and replaced. “Radical revolutions never work,” argues Janine. “They lead to oppression and tyranny.” Zoe shoots back that the American Revolution led to little more for her people anyway.
Both actresses deliver their side of the argument forcefully, passionately and credibly. But it’s two people talking at each other and not with one another, one not hearing what the other is saying. Zoe wants the university to serve the needs of students who look like her, with professors who take her feelings into account before lionizing founding fathers who kept slaves. Janine calls it millennial fragility. “It’s not fragility,” counters Zoe. “It’s awareness.”
The conflict escalates until both women cross the line of propriety. In the second act, we see the results of their inability to communicate, compromise or empathize with the other’s point of view. Their squabble has gone public, broadcast over social media, and broken both lives: Janine is suspended without pay and faces a tenure review, the portrait of George Washington gone from her office wall. Meanwhile, a depressed and traumatized Zoe stops going to class and fends off death threats from the alt-right. The two meet to hammer out their differences — and end the play only further apart.
While we learn a great deal about what these women think, there’s not enough about who they are, and playwright Burgess only muddies the waters with ironic curveballs, like when we learn that Janine is a lesbian who has had to fight not only sexism but homophobia throughout her career. Or that Zoe grew up in a wealthy Westchester neighborhood where Janine’s mother once cleaned houses for a living.
Who are we to root for? Theater can entertain and enlighten, challenge our prejudices and expose our privilege, but “The Niceties” doesn’t take a side. Inevitably, audiences will wind up rooting for the liberal professor or the radical student based on the beliefs they arrived with. It’s not exactly Fox News vs. MSNBC, but it comes close. And if that’s the point, to tell us what we already believe, then frankly, we deserve more.
“The Niceties” runs at Mile Square Theatre in Hoboken, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m., through April 17. Visit milesquaretheatre.org.
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