Writers Theatre's 'The Niceties' wages an intellectual war over history

  • Janine (Mary Beth Fisher) and Zoe (Ayanna Bria Bakan) don't see eye to eye on finding sources for a history paper in Eleanor Burgess' "The Niceties" at Writers Theatre in Glencoe.

    Janine (Mary Beth Fisher) and Zoe (Ayanna Bria Bakan) don't see eye to eye on finding sources for a history paper in Eleanor Burgess' "The Niceties" at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Writers Theatre

 
 
Updated 11/14/2019 4:44 PM

"The Niceties" - ★ ★ ★

Playwright Eleanor Burgess certainly knows how to raise the dramatic stakes in "The Niceties." And it's impossible not to be caught up in her challenging 2018 drama, now receiving an intellectually and emotionally bruising Chicago-area premiere at Writers Theatre in Glencoe.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Set during the 2016 election season, Burgess centers "The Niceties" at an unnamed elite Connecticut college. Things start out innocently enough as an African-American student, Zoe (Ayanna Bria Bakari), seeks office-hours feedback on an early draft of a paper for her Comparative Revolutions class from her published and tenured Caucasian history professor.

The professor, Janine (Mary Beth Fisher), likes the potential she sees in Zoe, an impassioned political science major. But Janine warns Zoe she lacks the proper primary sources and historical citations to back her paper's assertion that the American Revolution was only successful due to the institution of slavery.

Zoe counters that such documentation is practically impossible to find. Besides, Zoe says, she's too busy to make revisions before deadline because she has agreed to protest a campus speech by Sandra Day O'Connor by tweeting out live point-by-point rebuttals to everything said by the former Supreme Court justice.

Zoe (Ayanna Bria Bakan) takes issue with her history professor in Eleanor Burgess' "The Niceties" at Writers Theatre in Glencoe.
Zoe (Ayanna Bria Bakan) takes issue with her history professor in Eleanor Burgess' "The Niceties" at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Writers Theatre
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From there, Burgess allows the sparring to spiral. And it does indeed spiral, pitting Millennial against Baby Boomer as the young, tech-savvy "digital native" takes on the older book-loving library advocate -- and vice versa. Tempers flair as the two call out and then goad each other into cringeworthy bursts of bigotry.

On the surface, "The Niceties" shares a lot of parallels with David Mamet's 1992 college drama "Oleanna." But instead of a battle of the sexes, "The Niceties" zeros in on the shifting power dynamics between different generations and the larger question of who gets to write or rewrite history.

Burgess thankfully injects loads of sarcastic humor into her cutting material, and she's adept at showing the strong reasoning behind her two characters' implacable positions. There's a risk that the women could descend into talking-point ideologues, but director Marti Lyons and her amazing stars prevent that from happening.

Janine (Mary Beth Fisher) meets with a student during office hours in Eleanor Burgess' "The Niceties" at Writers Theatre in Glencoe.
Janine (Mary Beth Fisher) meets with a student during office hours in Eleanor Burgess' "The Niceties" at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Writers Theatre
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Bakari's Zoe palpably shows the stress of a minority student who has to overcompensate at being the best to get ahead. And it's easy to identify with Fisher as she embodies Janine's thrown-for-a-loop bewilderment at becoming the establishment target for so much "woke" venom.

Lyons' physical production of "The Niceties" is brilliantly designed all around. Set designer Courtney O'Neill's center stage set symbolically implies that Janine's office is a boxing ring.

Yet there are also subtle touches that speak volumes. Take notice when the portrait of George Washington disappears. And be aware that the north-side bricked backwall was specially built to mirror the Jeanne Gang-designed auditorium as a reminder that audiences are watching this play in a place of wealth and privilege to match its imagined Ivy League setting.

Zoe (Ayanna Bria Bakan), left, and Janine (Mary Beth Fisher) have a contentious second meeting in Eleanor Burgess' "The Niceties" at Writers Theatre in Glencoe.
Zoe (Ayanna Bria Bakan), left, and Janine (Mary Beth Fisher) have a contentious second meeting in Eleanor Burgess' "The Niceties" at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Writers Theatre

"The Niceties" is thrilling and engaging throughout, though it ends on a pessimistic and unsettling note.

The two left-leaning women of the play are so caught up in defending their own ways of achieving social progress that they discount the Republican Party's ability to reclaim the White House in 2016. It's as if "The Niceties" suggests that toxic infighting between those who opposed Donald Trump -- people like Janine and Zoe -- played a part in his victory.

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Location: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, (847) 242-6000 or writerstheatre.org

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday (no show Nov. 28), 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday (no evening show Dec. 8), extra 3 p.m. matinees Wednesday, Nov. 27 and Dec. 4; through Dec. 8

Tickets: $30-$80

Running time: About 2 hours with intermission

Parking: Area street parking

Rating: Some adult language, intense verbal sparring and implied violence

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