A colleague who teaches recently pointed out a surprising insight into the current generation of university-age students: According to an informal show-of-hands poll she conducted, hardly any of the young people in her class recognized the term “political correctness.” Could this mean that millennials have reached a point where they have outgrown the need for such a concept, where instead of feeling obligated to avoid causing offense to the underrepresented, as many of their elders begrudgingly do, they have adopted such sensitivity as second nature?
With her ironically titled two-hander, “The Niceties,” Eleanor Burgess takes a crowbar to the jagged generation gap between those in power and the disruptive new thinkers radical enough to expose the way their elders — including many who identify as progressives — so often pull the ladder up after themselves, as if to defend whatever hard-fought advances they have made. Burgess’ timely script doesn’t shy away from such difficult truths, but it raises them strategically, fully aware that theater is primarily an arena for the privileged, and that one cannot be too confrontational toward those who are paying more than $100 a ticket.
Still, “The Niceties” is a shrewd piece of writing, allowing audiences to alternate between both sides in a fast-evolving debate. At first, the lesson may seem to be about choosing one’s words carefully, when in fact Burgess (through the mouth of her idealistic but flawed younger character) directly challenges the toxic underlying thoughts that PC language so often disguises. Here, time-capsule-preserved for posterity, is a simmering record of racial bias and problems of representation a heartbeat before the #MeToo movement kicked in, contrasted with what one character calls “the cult of fragility.” If only she knew how tough the “snowflake” she’s sparring with truly is.
These days, no matter where you look, the Conversation is changing. That’s especially true in the realm of academia, which makes an upscale East Coast university an ideal place for Burgess to stage this tête-à-tête between a black student and her tenured white professor — and UCLA’s Geffen Playhouse the perfect venue to host this punchy two-hander, which had its Off Broadway run six months earlier at the Manhattan Theatre Club. The stage, like the cast and director, hasn’t changed since it began at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company: a long triangular shape that drastically reduces the available space, into which this female instructor has been wedged and where, beneath a steeply gabled roof, the figurative sparks are free to ricochet off the sharply angled walls and ceiling.
The back-and-forth proceeds pleasantly enough for a time, as college junior Zoe Reed (Jordan Boatman) submits a term paper early, hoping for assurances that she will receive the grade she needs to maintain her scholarship. Her thesis: “A successful American revolution was only possible because of slavery,” which Prof. Janine Bosko (Lisa Banes) patronizingly describes as “one of the more imaginative ideas I’ve seen” before picking apart Reed’s research methodology. (This snide dismissal is a bit of a stretch, as we were reminded of the death — the day before “The Niceties” had its Los Angeles opening — of historian David Brion Davis, who won a Pulitzer as far back as 1967 for his book “The Problem of Slavery in Western Civilization.” But it’s a necessary oversight to establish the racist bias Bosko doesn’t recognize she has.)
A leading scholar on the history of revolutions, Bosko is depicted as a liberal of a certain age: She drinks from a Hillary Clinton mug (the play is set toward the tail end of the Obama presidency); sits surrounded by posters of her heroes (Nelson Mandela, Emiliano Zapata, and George Washington); and guardedly reveals late in the play the fact that she is a lesbian. But is she truly an ally to the younger generation of women?
Reed’s body language suggests otherwise, and as she keeps checking her phone, we sense that she has somewhere better to be. But that phone is also a weapon, and Bosko doesn’t realize that at a certain point, Reed began recording their conversation. This meeting occurs on Bosko’s turf, and she hasn’t been watching her words. We can see she takes a certain pleasure in belittling the student — it’s there in the way she pronounces the word “bloggers,” or her insensitivity to Reed’s reasons for bypassing the university library, where too few books reflect the truth of her thesis.
And then Reed says this: “There is one appropriate way of responding to a woman of color who says, ‘I have an idea to assert,’ and that is to shut up and listen. Because she has experience you cannot possibly know, and insight you can learn from.” On opening night, that line elicited claps from one segment of an audience clearly torn between the two perspectives, each side signaling its approval with ever-more-enthusiastic applause as the show went on.
Watching “The Niceties” in this environment is a strange and fascinating experience. Neither character is “right,” even if both are inflexibly self-righteous, and without too much exaggeration — but a certain amount of convenient simplification — Burgess writes them as articulate opponents in a philosophical schism that can’t be neatly rectified. Bosko recalls that back when she attended the same university, as a pioneer member of its third female class, her mantra for survival was “Toughen up.”
But Reed refuses to accept injustice, even if it means taking down one of the (relatively) good professors on campus: “You have to give up some of your power because you have more than your fair share,” she says in the more confrontational second act. That’s the pitchforks-and-torches-outside-the-castle line no one who struggled to achieve Bosko’s position wants to hear, but also a potent reminder of the silent role privilege plays in the stories we tell of how we achieved our own success.
Of course, no one goes to the theater to be lectured — and if Reed is to be believed, some students don’t want such inculcation from the classroom either (the character keeps a notebook of “the things I shouldn’t have to hear, things I found problematic”). In that respect, “The Niceties” does adhere to its winkingly euphemistic title: Burgess presents this thorny debate in entertaining and reasonably civil terms, encouraging theatergoers to consider both sides.
It’s telling who gets the last word here, although more revealing still is what happens the instant the play is over: Suddenly, both performers erupt into smiles and join each other at center stage, signaling to the audience that the conflict was just pretend — a didactic charade of sorts — and everyone can return to their lives untroubled. But Burgess has touched on something that will follow viewers out into the real world. Without telling people what to think, or upsetting them outright, she’s invited those assembled to question their assumptions.