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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

The Niceties — McCarter Theatre

Oooh, those asterisks.

They sneak in everywhere these days.

Heck, they’re practically de rigueur.

The first asterisk I disliked was the one I felt minimized Roger Maris’s slugging achievement because he had more games (162) in which to hit 61 home runs than Babe Ruth did (154) when he hit 60.

The asterisk can no longer nonchalantly inform, as in letting you know there a footnote or some bit of edification at the bottom of a page.

No. No. No.

Today the asterisk also qualifies or mitigates.

One might opine, as I do, George Washington is the most important individual in American history because without him, the American Revolution may never have had the chance to become the American invention of citizen government and ongoing democracy.

Remember, I’m opining, giving, as I always do, one person’s take based on impressions from a lifetime of reading extensively about the America Revolution.

One could consider George Washington a lasting and laudable hero.

But Washington, like Moses, King David, Socrates, Henry VIII, Lincoln, Churchill, and his particular nemesis, George III, a rather interesting guy, is human, and therefore not perfect.

And therefore laden with asterisks.

Especially today.

In a world that valued a 100 percent look at any figure or situation, the asterisks would be helpful. They would indicate that one person, a human and therefore not perfect, could play the pivotal role in an extraordinary times and still have blots on his character.

Asterisks now are a means to diminish, to remind that one should not be revered, and perhaps even pilloried over imperfections, mistakes, and flaws that cloud a sunny picture.

One outstanding asterisk is Washington owned slaves. He agonized over this ownership and engineered a way to free his unconscionable human holdings upon his widow’s death, but he knowingly participated in a peculiar institution that maintained an economy via the free labor and reprehensible attitudes towards and treatment of other human beings, who in a contemporary’s words, are created equal.

Conflicting facts can be difficult to reconcile, especially if people want the story to tell only one side or the other and not both, and more especially if perspective and proportion do not figure into the equation.

We live in a time when some people want all statues and tributes to George Washington and others taken away because one aspect of his life means more to those people than his entire life. On the other hand, some people want to avoid talking of a great man’s grievous shortcomings. The Washington detractors and Washington exalters are imposing their own 100 percent rule, one says that a person is a 100 percent this or 100 percent that and nothing in between.

The 100 percent rule I posit is different. It means looking at the entire person and recognizing all he or she did instead of focusing on one segment of a history and declaring the only one worth considering. It means considering the “ands” and not resting all judgment on the “ors.”

The wrong kind of 100 rule is causing a rift in this country. The perspective and proportion I mention, and value, are disappearing. Absolutism has taken over. A situation is one thing or the other and never the twain shall meet. “Ors” rule the day.

That just isn’t true. To paraphrase Shaw, people do not have their vices and virtues in neat little sets but as they come. A person who is genuinely remarkable in a significant way might be less than admirable in other ways.

Too often, that is not allowed to be the case these days. A single ignoble trait or act can erase a majority of benevolence.

George Washington is frequently a victim of this type of thinking, an ironic circumstance because the reason I nominate Washington as the single most important American ever is the judgment, decision-making, and disciplining qualities he exercised to keep partisan forces from exploding the whole American experiment, as might and probably would have happened if not for the first President’s staying hand. It is he, among all, that mediated and made crucial decisions that kept extreme or compromising forces at bay, neutralizing them in way that let the new country breathe, thrive, and prosper.

Again, my opinion. People are entitled to others.

They are not entitled to negate mine, formed from reams of reading over decades and not without some wrestling over contradictions or the contributions of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Marshall, Albert Gallatin, and John Jay. Or expect me to abandon what I’ve deduced to please their take on the situation.

So why this lengthy preamble, and how does it relate to a play that thus far has been mentioned only in the headline?

I’ll tell you.

“The Niceties,” Eleanor Burgess’s play enjoying a marvelous production at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, addresses all of this, our current philosophical conundrum and penchant for one-side-only absolutism, with careful but sweeping intelligence, meticulous, perhaps overmeticulous, thoroughness, probing depth, and enlightening clarity.

Burgess’s is an important play because it places the divisive national argument on stage. I might agree with cavilers who say Burgess’s characters, a professor and an undergrad who objects to her presentation of history, are representative and say the expected. I would counter by saying that’s the way the story has to be shown, and told, and heard, in sometimes obvious stances and phrases, because their familiarity, bordering occasionally on cant, sets up myriad issues and ideas, and looks at both personal and actual logic Burgess will mine during the course of her play.

The seemingly obvious leads to some strong surprises and makes “The Niceties,” particularly as directed by Kimberly Senior and performed by the note-perfect Lisa Banes and Jordan Boatman, as excitingly thought-provoking and thought-defining, as it is engrossing and entertaining.

George Washington figures into the hubbub, briefly becoming the focal point in the tense clash between teacher and student.

Washington’s portrait hangs prominently on the wall of the professor’s office. She, Janine Bosco, is not a run-of-the-mill history prof. She is a distinguished and prolific author who is considered an expert in the American Revolution and particularly the factors that kept it from devolving into the chaos and bloodshed found in other revolutions, the French and Bolshevik Revolutions for example, that featured radical rebellion is addition to altering the status quo and which ultimately failed, often to create or be replaced by new and more severe oppression.

The American Revolution avoided that, and Janine posits it’s because a radical revolution did not follow the revolution for freedom and independence.

Peers may respect and applaud Janine. She even advises internationally about revolution and other changes in government structure. She, in the academic and diplomatic spheres, is considered tops in her field and worth hearing.

The student, Zoe, pronounced Zoey, is not so sure. She may not have the scholarly basis to question Janine’s reputation, but she has her instinct, her principles, and her verdict on George Washington.

Washington may be surrounded in Janine’s quarters by other portraits depicting Nelson Mandela, Pancho Villa, Lech Walesa, and others who have fought for and achieved a pure and stabilizing democracy.

Zoe barely notices them. She is offended by Washington staring down at her from Janine’s wall. His image, a representation of his presence, insults and threatens her. She says it negates her and makes her feel unwelcome in Janine’s cozy lair and at the Ivy League university she attends in general.

Washington symbolizes the oligarch, the warlord, and the perpetrator who held slaves, even in the American capitals, Philadelphia and New York where slavery was illegal, and proved the Revolution was to benefit the rich and makes no mention of the people who may not have thrived by its dawning, specifically the slaves who remained slaves, including on the Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe estates, and had no visible, or at least recorded, or liberating outcome from 1776, 1787, or any time during the formation of nation later said to have been conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Zoe wants to write a thesis saying the Revolution was incomplete because it didn’t involve the slaves. She also refutes Janine’s position about America having a peaceful, successful Revolution saying the only reason it didn’t lead, as others did, to a radical revolution is because the people who would have, and should have, forged that revolution were kept down or didn’t rise up to demand their place in a novel experiment that affected so many others.

Zoe’s points are interesting, and she states them proudly and with some superior sense of revealing or declaring something no other historian has broached.

The pride and smile fade when Janine questions her sources. What Zoe is saying may be valid on some level and provocative on another, but it is not supported by any primary documents.

Historians, Janine says, do not work on hunches, and certainly don’t provide references from the Internet or blogosphere. They haunt libraries, they search for firsthand accounts that support a thesis, they verify those accounts and reinforce them with others that agree and build a credible picture, they compare their findings with other authoritative texts, especially those offering primary information, and they strive for accuracy at the expense of giving up on theories and hypotheses that don’t bear proof.

Zoe is more of the “everybody knows” school. She also prizes feeling and emotions more than she does academic rigor.

Thwarted, Zoe presents familiar accusations, and Janine, after trying to counter by explaining the painstaking research process, offers the familiar defenses.

Arguments are presented well and never seem like cliché or some debate you may encounter in a high school classroom.

Standards are being attacked as standards and being upheld and insisted upon.

To Burgess’s credit, she gives both characters points even if Janine’s ring with clearer logic.

Zoe gets the chance to express how she honestly feels, and how she believes many students on campus — not only black and female but underprivileged in general — feel. She explains the care Janine and professors should take to avoid treading on fragile and exposed sensibilities.

These are worth considering to understand the insensitivity Zoe is describing.

Zoe is not content to explain feelings she doesn’t believe Janine can fathom even as Janine listens to them, and Banes, as Janine acknowledges them. She wants everything on her terms.

The Washington picture frightens her. It makes no difference to her is Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman Justice on the Supreme Court. O’Connor took stances she didn’t like. Janine says it’s good to see some dichotomies, but to Zoe, the negative obliterates any positive, for O’Connor as well as Washington, as for another visitor to the campus she must protest because he won’t condemn Israel, as Zoe thinks he must.

“The Niceties” depicts and exposes the impossibility of dealing with someone who believes only she is right, even as her allegedly adversary is conceding points and admitting there are improvements to be made.

The “can’t win” nature of partisanship that so plagues the 21st century United States, is visible in Burgess’s play and Senior’s production. The frustration of mounting a useful argument against deaf ears, and the length the absolute will go to have their way, also comes through.

To Senior’s credit, and to Banes’s and Boatman’s, “The Niceties” doesn’t devolve into some Stürm und Drang, knockdown dragout, at least not initially. Banes’s Janine maintain a cool, urbane professional air. Boatman’s Zoe, before she starts making threats and demands, keeps a different kind of cool, that of one who thinks she holds all the cards and has all the answers in her arsenal. The civilized nature of both characters make what they say all the most poignant and absorbing. They make you listen. No doubt, different audiences hear more logic in one that the other — Burgess aims to give Zoe her day and something important to impart. — but just as important as the arguments and the bases underpinning them, is the presentation of issues that are much a part, and a necessary part, of a national debate. These aren’t the issues of race, power, minority beyond race, and generational dissonance, although all are touched upon. These are issues that cut to the core of what gets in the way of serious debate and threatens a cultural divide that goes further away from being broached.

Burgess addresses headier stuff than showing adversaries and their points of view at odds. I rate “The Niceties” an important play because it employs the simple tack of having philosophical opponents make recognizable cases while delving deeper into seminal matters such as an historian’s need to authenticate assertions by reference to original and indisputable sources, a general need to separate the verifiable from the sentimental or intuited, the difference between thorough research in a library and taking information from unvetted web sites or the blogosphere, the virtue of civil discourse over emotional diatribe, uses and shifts of personal power, a difference between negotiated policy and shrill manifesto, a distinction between reasonable and unrealistic demands, the dividing line between justice and revenge, the palliative effect of compromise, today’s immediate means of stirring public opinion via social media, and wanton, perhaps reckless, use of threats.

All of these current sticking points are in “The Niceties.” Zoe wants her way because her emotions rule her thought process, and hurt and slights she’s endured influence her attitude. Janine stands more for order and calm debate, but she is cowed by much of what Zoe says about how she feels when she encounters certain behaviors or pronouncements.

For instance, when Zoe complained that Janine’s lecture psychically injure her when she says things such as “The United States was lucky to have George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as two of its first three Presidents.” The problem is Zoe doesn’t know when to end or when what she regards as justice is a childish quest for revenge.

The effectiveness of social media is also demonstrated as Zoe makes public something meant to damage Janine and threaten her position at the university, in diplomatic circles, and as an historian. One of the factors that influence the outbreak of World War I was public opinion, never so strongly expressed or heeded as in that period. Social media magnifies public upheaval and support exponentially. It can also be pendulum-like in whom it serves, when, and in what order.

So much of today’s concerns are addressed in “The Niceties,” it’s impossible to encompass them all even in an essay no one can limit.

It all goes back to those asterisks. Janine is willing to add them even if she thinks they cloud rather than clarifying basic truths. Zoe has no time for asterisks. Everything is absolute and everything needs fixing, as she envisions and designs the repairs.

A leitmotif of “The Niceties” is reference to revolution and its repercussions, Janine’s primary study. Burgess had done no less than encapsulate the cultural revolution on the McCarter stage. We see it in immediate action, and it has its effect. A strong one.

Burgess deserves abundant praise for how completely and cleverly she packed so much into her play. About the only writing decision I’d question is providing a reason why Zoe may be extreme as she is. I would prefer, and think it would have been better, for Zoe to be a child of her time, formed by the rhetoric of that time, rather than having a possible excuse for her anger and inflexibility.

Kimberly Senior keeps masterful control of the action, timing outbursts and giving reason time to prevail before chaos is presented into the voice of someone emphatically but unemotionally reading a manifesto.

Senior could not have chosen two better actresses to mount their character’s viewpoints and conflicts.

Lisa Banes has had one of the most varied careers of any actress. Known mostly for her work in New York theater, Banes has proven versatile, especially when she plays out of type.

Janine is right in Banes’s wheelhouse, a contained, educated woman who can, until threatened in all ways but physically, has to stand some ground, and even then, does so with an academician’s and statesman’s ease. Banes exudes the woman of experience who feels at home in august settings with influential people. The actress can hold this stance even when becoming a bit unnerved by all Zoe says and takes it upon herself to do. She gives Janine mature poise but lets her be human, and therefore not perfect, when provoked.

Jordan Boatman endows Zoe with some hauteur, the idea she is always the one in control even when she isn’t, and even when the power struggle in teeter-tottering between the protagonists. There’s a laugh in her eye and her expression as she makes her points about things she doesn’t like about Janine’s, or anyone’s, teaching and as she makes her demands. Boatman’s Zoe is always in the right, based on her deportment and expressions.

As hot as Zoe can get, Boatman can let humor and a hint of superiority temper her anger so she never seems irate or physically dangerous. In anything, Zoe scares by how confident she is and how assured there can be no correct point of view aside from hers.

Banes and Boatman play cat and mouse well. Their sparring, enervating as it can be at times, seems real. It is gratifying to see how Banes’s Janine always comes back to negotiating and depending on academic practice to score her points. It’s equally enjoyable to see Boatman giving Zoe some range and not portraying her as a termagant who can’t get beyond her soapbox.

Burgess writes to the end. “The Niceties” comes to a conclusion, but not one that ties it into a neat bow. The last words go to Zoe, and they have a Malvolian air of determined prophecy to them.

Cameron Anderson endows Janine with the perfect dormer office, framed stark white and book strewn with the symbol of the university in one of the slanted windows. Kara Harmon’s costumes are so perfect, you would never know Janine and Zoe didn’t choose their clothes. Senior makes shrewd us of D.M. Wood’s lighting to enhance appropriate moods.

“The Niceties” plays through Sunday, February 10, at the Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, in Princeton, N.J. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday (except Tuesday, Jan. 29), 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday (except Wednesday, Jan. 23). Tickets range from $90 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 609-258-2787 or by visiting www.mccarter.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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