College campuses have become the crucible of the new and expanded culture wars embroiling America, and no contemporary play does a better job of capturing the tenor of this fierce battle than Eleanor Burgess’ “The Niceties.”
This potent debate drama, keenly directed by Kimberly Senior at the Geffen Playhouse, pits a high-achieving black millennial political science student against a distinguished white female professor of history. Both consider themselves on the right side of history, yet they are divided not only by a generational gulf but also by a common language that has split into different dialects of progressivism.
The play, set in 2016, begins in the twilight of Obama’s presidency, just as the Republican primary is sorting out who the party’s nominee will be. Donald Trump isn’t mentioned, but he looms darkly over the drama, the worst-case scenario waiting menacingly in the wings.
Zoe Reed (a bracingly convincing Jordan Boatman) has come to the office of her history professor, Janine Bosko (a pitch-perfect Lisa Banes), to get feedback on a draft of her paper on the American Revolution. An ambitious student who wants to protect her stellar GPA, Zoe patiently listens as Janine first reviews a litany of minor grammatical and stylistic lapses, from a missing comma to a lack of parallelism.
The word “nicety” can refer to a fine or subtle detail or distinction, and for the first few minutes, Janine is somewhat grandly preoccupied with the niceties of copy editing. Zoe assures her professor that these errors will be corrected in the final draft and, frustrated at how long this meeting is taking and wanting assurance that she can quickly revise the paper into a guaranteed A, asks if there are any substantive concerns that need to be addressed.
Professor Bosko breaks the news to her with her characteristic gentle hauteur. “I’m afraid you’re in for quite a substantial rewrite,” she tells Zoe. “Your argument is ... fundamentally unsound.”
Zoe’s thesis is that the American Revolution wasn’t a radical assertion of democracy but rather represented a “moderate” constitutional transformation that shored up the white ruling class at the expense of the large population of enslaved black people. Janine, though skeptical of the argument, admires the feisty originality of Zoe’s contention, but insists she must find evidence to support her claim that goes beyond blogs and opinion pieces lazily trawled through a Google search.
Burgess succeeds in setting up a fair and balanced fight. If Janine acts in ways that are condescending and self-important, she is deeply committed to upholding the same rigorous intellectual standards that have propelled her to the top of her field.
Similarly, if Zoe has reason to feel her perspective as a woman of color is being dismissed by the academic establishment, she betrays that combination of entitlement and victimhood that baby boomers find so exasperating in the millennial generation.
Janine offers to obtain a list of sources from a colleague who teaches African American history at Duke and even floats the possibility of an extension, but Zoe doesn’t want to devote more time to the project. A student activist, she has protests planned, including one against Sandra Day O’Connor, who is speaking on campus that weekend.
“You’re protesting the first female Supreme Court justice?” Janine asks skeptically. Zoe, flexing her Google muscles, enumerates O’Connor’s poor record on decisions affecting racial minorities. Janine doesn’t have a problem with the critique, but she has trouble accepting that yesterday’s trailblazer is today’s rearguard enemy.
Zoe may be at fault for not wanting to do further research. (“The library?” she exclaims in horror when Janine demands that she sift through primary documents.) But she is right to call attention to the double standard of imposing a traditional academic methodology on a subject that for centuries was willfully ignored by the historical record.
“You’re excluding the people who couldn’t leave evidence behind,” an exasperated Zoe argues. “People who couldn’t write. Anyone without money, or an education. Anyone with no possessions for historians to dig up.”
As the debate heats up, the tone becomes increasingly acrimonious. The other meaning of “nicety,” some aspect of polite social behavior, comes into play as Zoe and Janine have difficulty appreciating each other as human beings outside of their academic roles. Decorum breaks down as the masks of civility fall off in a power struggle that is no less brutal for taking place in the quiet halls of the Ivory Tower. (The set, by Cameron Anderson, could be an office at any prestigious campus, though the script hints that the Connecticut university in question is Yale.)
Comparisons with “Oleanna” are unavoidable, but Burgess is a far less tendentious playwright than David Mamet. Indeed, her writing is a good deal more scrupulous: The student-teacher standoff rarely hits an implausible note even when the aggression dramatically ratchets up.
A better analogy for “The Niceties” is Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Disgraced,” which Senior impeccably directed on Broadway (as well as at the Mark Taper Forum). In both these plays, the terms of the debate shift as new information is gleaned about the characters. The personal complicates the political, frustrating the desire for schematic answers and convenient solutions to conflicts that only time and history can resolve.
If the play has a salient weakness, it may be that it is too reasonable. Burgess doesn’t pull many punches in bringing the action to a crisis point at the end of the first act or in dealing with the aftermath once the dispute has gone viral, thanks to Zoe’s phone.
But the societal stalemate isn’t allowed to theatrically break free. As a result, we’re left in a kind of holding pattern that has the benefit of being honest but the liability of feeling static.
Fortunately, the acting, a perfectly executed pas de deux of ideas, concentrates the restless mind. Boatman, who recently appeared in Hulu’s “The Path,” grounds Zoe in lived-experience even when she’s at her most ideologically strident. She respects her character without simplifying or sentimentalizing her. Banes gives us a formidably smart woman humiliatingly — which is to say humanly — encountering her own racist blind spots.
The opening night audience Wednesday seemed divided in its sympathies, with some theatergoers cheering Zoe’s pointed thrusts and others applauding Janine’s expert parries. I doubt that the play changed many minds. But as Chekhov used to say to contemporaries such as Tolstoy who would fault him for not taking more of a stand in his writing, the job of the artist isn’t to provide solutions but to pose the right questions.
“The Niceties” accurately describes a rupture that is happening not only in academia but also in politics, as establishment figures face off against a new generation of leaders tired of playing by the incremental rules. In truth, there are few areas of American life that “The Niceties” doesn’t speak to right now.
You should see it and debate it. But rather than using the play to prove what you already think, try to open your mind to both sides of a dramatic argument that has been constructed refreshingly with as much dispassion as passion.
Where: Geffen Playhouse’s Gil Cates Theater, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through May 12
Tickets: $30-$120 (subject to change)
Info: (310) 208-5454 or geffenplayhouse.org