In the Geffen Playhouse’s latest production, you’re going to office hours at an elite university.
A distinguished professor is holding court - as professors are wont to do - and a young student is there to talk about class and her paper. Conversation is going along nicely - okay, maybe it’s a bit pedantic and condescending. Then fault lines begin to appear. Old ideas and methods - new ideas and inclusion. The professor’s challenged, fights back, and then the student makes things public: scandal!
Now, if this has you thinking of David Mamet’s 1992 play “Oleanna” you wouldn’t be alone but you wouldn’t be thinking of the current play at the Geffen.
This play is Eleanor Burgess’ “The Niceties” and while it owes its conceit to “Oleanna”, it’s a radically different play.
David Mamet’s fault lines play out along gender: male professor and young female student. The charge? Sexual harassment. While his is a dramatic scene, I’m not sure anyone really wonders which side Mr. Mamet comes down on.
In Ms. Burgess’ play both characters are female and complex. This time the issue is white supremacy and revolution. Zoe is black. Professor Bosko is white. Our subject? American History. Specifically the white men who in this professor’s view were the geniuses behind the most successful revolution in history. Zoe has a different take. Maybe, just maybe, the success of the American revolution owes a debt to slavery. Maybe the prosperity of America is dependent on having a repressed minority to unify things. And maybe, (okay, no definitely) - racism is at play here.
This is shocking to Professor Bosko. She’s one of the good guys. Yes, she has an adoring portrait of George Washington in her faculty office but she’s also got Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa and Zapata - heck, she’s voting for Hillary in the fall - she can’t be a racist.
Zoe is done. She’s heard from her last white genius and she’s brought receipts from class on all the ways the professor’s a racist. Zoe’s phone that she’s constantly on - that’s a tool and weapon in more ways than one.
The structure of “The Niceties” is clear from the opening (and not just because of its similarities to “Oleanna”). The act break falls with the scandal going public - the professor’s racism - and act two brings the pair back together to see if there’s any way to make reparations. If you’re paying attention to the play and the culture - there’s nothing terribly shocking.
It’s a testament to Ms. Burgess’ writing that, in spite of that, she keeps the audience engaged. You can feel their allegiances shift between the two parties. You can hear the muffled “harrumphs” about gender identity. You nod with the knowing laughter when allusions are made to how that 2016 election is going to turn out. You can feel an audience weighing a complicated web of issues.
These are two strong, if occasionally flawed, arguments matching one another. And the play know’s it’s audience. You can feel it pulling on both their sympathies and prejudices.
Is anyone changed? Is the status quo suddenly tumbling?
Don’t hold your breath but it’s a tiny step forward … and a solid piece of theater.