This is not a situation that Janine ever thought she would be in. In her eyes, she has fought the good fight, attending an Ivy League university soon after it began admitting women, then making her way to the top of the sexist academic world to become a tenured history professor and author, and a respected expert in her field.
Then along comes Zoe.
In Eleanor Burgess’ brilliant and timely play — currently making its world premiere at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton — Zoe is a student of Janine’s, coming to her office, at the start of Act 1, to discuss a paper.
Janine seems impressed by Zoe, but is a bit of a stickler, insisting on grammatical precision in Zoe’s writing. Soon, it comes out, Janine’s has bigger issues with the paper, which is about the role of slaves in the American Revolution.
Janine says Zoe hasn’t followed proper scholarly procedure, and that her grade will suffer for it. Zoe says that proper scholarly procedure is impossible in this case, because slaves are underrepresented in the kind of historical artifacts historians use. They go back and forth for a while, and the uncompromising, brutally confrontational Zoe challenges Janine on certain deeply underlying assumptions about race and class and sexual orientation that she believes underlie Janine’s life and work.
Janine is taken aback. Is it really racist to have a picture of George Washington on her office wall? She’s never really considered it. But Washington did own slaves. And she can hardly believe it when Zoe tells her she is going to protest a speech by Sandra Day O’Connor on campus. To Janine, O’Connor is a hero: The first female Supreme Court justice. But Zoe feels O’Connor’s decisions on race issues were shameful, and deserving of protest.
Their argument escalates, and Janine gets more and more animated. An explosive revelation at the end of Act 1 leads to a somewhat more sedate Act 2, in which Janine and Zoe try to work through their differences — once again, starting somewhat calmly, and then becoming more intense. In a clever bit of staging, Zoe sometimes casually sits at Janine’s desk when she is feeling most powerful.
By the end of Act 2, nothing is resolved. One senses that, with these two, nothing can ever be resolved.
One of the reasons the play is so powerful is that Burgess doesn’t take sides. Janine is smart and sensitive and well-intentioned, but does have some blind spots. Zoe is stubborn and disrespectful and sometimes blows things out of proportion (she’s also “bereft of sympathy,” in Janine’s words), but her insistence that the world live up to her standards is admirable.
I found myself, in the course of the play, sometimes agreeing with Janine, and sometimes with Zoe. Ultimately, I can’t say that one was right and one was wrong.
It’s also a play about the generation gap — Zoe does her research online, Janine prefers dusty old books — and about changing times. Janine, after all, was one of the professors who established the groundwork for what Zoe is now doing. But, Zoe is arguing, Janine hasn’t gone far enough.
And that’s part of why this play seems so timely. Both sides are so deeply entrenched in their version of the truth that they can’t see anything else. It’s just a perfect capsule picture of where we are, as a society, now.
The play is set in the mid-2010s — on “An Ivy League University in the Northeast,” the program says, though Burgess makes it clear that it’s supposed to be Yale. (Though “Yale” isn’t mentioned in the script, the university is in Connecticut, and there are no other Ivy League schools in Connecticut.) The action takes place toward the end of President Obama’s second term, and this leads to a stunning line by Burgess, as Janine tries to persuade Zoe that the United States, despite its historical flaws, is always improving.
The country now has its first black president, Janine says, and “we’re about to have our first female president. Things are getting better. Now is a terrible time to give up.”
“The Niceties” will be at the Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center through Feb. 10. Visit mccarter.org.