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Theater review by Raven Snook
If ideological battles on Twitter tend to set your blood boiling, bring Xanax to The Niceties, Eleanor Burgess's gimmicky but shrewd debate play at Manhattan Theatre Club. Janine (a deliciously condescending Lisa Banes) is a white, 60-year-old history professor at an elite Northeast university; Zoe (Jordan Boatman, a live wire) is her African-American student, with whom she dukes it out over who gets to tell America’s story. Both women are whip-smart and great at talking—but when it comes to listening, they have some learning to do.
Burgess, who studied history at Yale, is pretty quick-witted herself. The arguments she presents—about free speech versus cultural sensitivity, and the difference between endorsing and enacting progressive ideals—are nuanced and timely. Director Kimberly Senior has the characters treat the professor's cozy office like a boxing ring, with the power dynamics constantly shifting as they dance around the book-strewn desk.
Despite the performers' excellent efforts, however, the combatants seem more like political positions than people; the plot that has been grafted onto their righteous pontifications rings hollow, and the sparring becomes repetitious, especially since neither woman seems capable of change. Perhaps that’s the point: The Niceties suggests that there may be no way to bridge the generational, racial and class divides on the left. Although your pulse might race while you watch these warriors, you may also feel your heart sink. As the women keep taking their swings, the play starts going in circles.
Manhattan Theatre Club (Off Broadway). By Eleanor Burgess. Directed by Kimberly Senior. With Lisa Banes, Jordan Boatman. Running time: 1hr 50mins. One intermission.