“The Niceties”: an age-old gap, still unbridged

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"The Niceties" at McCarter Theatre with Lisa Banes and Jordan Boatman. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

An eternal conflict that is timeless at McCarter Theatre

The venerable McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton has, in its long career, presented plays of depth and importance. However, I am hard-pressed to recall a play as timeless, yet as powerfully timely, as their current production of Eleanor Burgess’ play The Niceties, currently at the Berlind Theatre. This is a work of such rare excellence that I can only urge in the strongest possible way that you see it.

"The Niceties" at McCarter Theatre scene with Jordan Boatman. Photo by T. Charles Erickson
“The Niceties” at McCarter Theatre scene with Jordan Boatman. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

The play takes place at an Ivy League University in the northeast. Zoe (Jordan Boatman), an undergraduate student, has presented a draft of her paper on the role played by slavery in the American Revolution to her history instructor, Janine (Lisa Banes). What begins as polite disagreement between the white professor and her black student quickly escalates into a passionate, troubling argument that touches on all the negative –isms of the day.

But at its core, this is a story of the eternal conflict of generations. Janine, from a prior generation, is more cautious because she’s lived through and knows the pitfalls of her own tumultuous, emotion-laden struggles. Zoe, of the current generation, is more self-righteous, unwilling to hear much less heed the examples of the past, and refusing to believe that any generation before could ever have felt what she passionately feels. This play, with its stunning last lines, encourages its audience to examine the positions and prejudices of Janine and Zoe — and their own as well — which lead to the breakdown of communication between people of differing viewpoints.

"The Niceties" at McCarter Theatre scene with Lisa Banes. Photo by T. Charles Erickson
“The Niceties” at McCarter Theatre scene with Lisa Banes. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Under the strong direction of Kimberly Senior, both Lisa Banes and Zoe Boatman give riveting, no-holds-barred performances, ensuring you not only hear what they say but how they say it. Cameron Anderson’s set and Kara Harmon’s costumes combine with D.M. Wood’s lighting designs and Elisheba Ittoop’s sound design and original music to create the all-too-believable world the two characters inhabit.

McCarter Theatre Centre has come through with a first-class production, one with quality shining from every department — acting, direction, playwriting, design. Their production of The Niceties sets a high bar for drama, not only at McCarter but for theatres throughout the state. This outstanding production is designed for the serious theatregoer who enjoys a play of strong conflict intelligently presented. I cannot urge you strongly enough to see and explore The Niceties.

The Niceties is presented by the McCarter Theatre Center at the Berlind Theatre on the campus of Princeton University through February 10, 2019. For tickets and information, visit mccarter.org.