McCarter’s Berlind Theatre is hosting the World Premiere of Eleanor Burgess’ “The Niceties,” now through February 10. This play was inspired by an actual incident on the campus of Yale University in 2015 and, as we see two dedicated, intellectually driven women, who are equally passionate about their points of view, there are questions that lie between them that are as important as the stances they take.
Janine (Lisa Banes) is an American History professor whose scholarship is nonpareil–she is inspired by the leaders who created a country and the Constitution out of a rejection of imperialism, recognizing that they couldn’t quite shake all of the flaws that are now so evident, nearly eight generations after the fact. Zoe (Jordan Boatman) is an exceptional modern student. She makes an excellent argument in her thesis and, when we first meet Janine and Zoe, they are discussing that argument. The differences in understanding of primary sources, footnotes, and how we support what we know in our hearts to be true, are vast and ultimately, two people on sometimes the same side of a question are prepared to fight to the end for their beliefs.
Burgess’ writing is brilliant. Director Kimberly Senior’s vision gives us the full measure of the vastness of the divide and the closeness of the intellect in a battle royale of great minds. Plays are like music–with phrasing, movements and drama. Senior conducts Janine and Zoe in classic tones of chordal conflict and resolution, soft and loud, great and small, with the bits of information we glean from and about each woman adding to the picture, as I held out hope for them to reach a plateau. Do they arrive at a summit? You’ll need to determine that for yourself.
Each of the minds is willing to give little quarter and the cold intellect housed in the design of Cameron Anderson’s cozy office set may remind many former, and current, students of many visits during office hours. Kara Harmon’s costumes provide the information we need to further define the personality of each gladiator, as our clothing choices tell a lot about who we are, and whom we want you to see. DM Wood’s lighting gives us the sense of the passage of time, as well as the mellow fluid timelessness of an academic office, and Elisheba Ittoop provides original music along with the sound design to round out the dream team of creative women.
Conflict and resolution are how we learn to think for ourselves. A well-reasoned, well crafted argument contains hard facts and elements of spirit. You need to see Burgess’ play–it is unsettling, thought provoking and oddly intimate and it is a brilliant statement of the value of perspective. Whether our differences are visible, intellectual, emotional–they are all intersectional, and where we are at the crossroads defines perspective. How will you answer the challenge?
“The Niceties” is running just through February 10, so don’t delay! Contact the box office at www.McCarter.org
or via telephone at 609/258-ARTS (2787).