Sunday, September 30, 2018

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey BURGESS Goes Mamet One Better

Eleanor Burgess’ brilliant two hander, THE NICETIES, may have used David Mamet’s OLEANNA structure (student confronts teacher/ professor gets rattled/ says and does untoward things/ consequences ensue) but that’s where the comparison ends. THE NICETIES isn’t about radical feminism. Racism and history are at odds in the Huntington’s savvy production (playing through Oct. 6th) and unlike the static Mamet play, I truly enjoyed Burgess’ serious and often humorous writing.

The law of unintended consequences, however, has intervened in my review because I saw Burgess’ extraordinary play mere hours after I watched Dr. Blasey Ford and Judge Kavanaugh testify before Congress on Sept. 27 (prior to Senator Flake’s successful maneuver for an F.B.I. investigation). Words like prep school, bravery, hearings and death threats jumped across the footlights at me, clanging like “The Anvil Chorus.” Suddenly, Burgess’ play became an indictment of the current (hopeless, helpless) state of our democracy, when, in fact, she sets her play in 2016 before the car wreck of an alt-right government.

Burgess is concerned with the bias of history, especially American historywritten, as the pundits say, by the victors. So why should we be surprised that there are few accounts from African slaves or Native-Americans of what transpired? The young African-American student whose paper is being skewered for both grammar and content (by her elegant but pretentious white professor) makes the case that she’s carrying around “real history” in her skin and bones. (Fats Waller made the case seventy years ago about “what is on my face” in his searing “Black and Blue.” Yet African-Americans today still find their lives endangered by the color of their skin.)

Jordan Boatman’s Zoe is audacious and impetuous and her professor (Lisa Banes, oozing a Seven Sisters superiority) doesn’t much like her tone. She tries to tell the student she’s sympatico: “I get it,” she says. And you know the response to that! The back and forth is exciting stuff. You think the teacher has a point (about books being better than Google for academic reference material), then you side with the student (about the importance of demonstrations and marches over classes). It’s a marvelous debate until it goes very wrong.

You’re even drawn into the argument at the center of their academic disagreement: that revolutions don’t work. The professor maintains that the repressive government which is violently overthrown makes way for yet another repressive regime, citing Russia, Iran and Cuba. The student is sure that in America’s case, “democracy was fertilized by oppression” but her professor isn’t signing on, especially without proof.

Director Kimberly Senior gets a clever dramatic rhythm going on stage for the two dynamic performers and Act I hurtles by. The second act resolution, for me, is less satisfying than the set-up but whether we favor one point of view over the other, Burgess manages to make both characters compelling and sympathetic.