BWW Review: Searing Conversation About Race in Portland Stage's THE NICETIES

BWW Review: Searing Conversation About Race in Portland Stage's THE NICETIES

Portland Stage's current production of Eleanor Burgess's two-character drama, The Niceties, is a intense, searing, often exhausting theatrical experience. The play, written during the last Presidential campaign, probes a plethora of contemporary issues from race in America to the meaning of revolution, feminism, the impact and influence of history, the struggles for power between the elite and the voiceless. Set at an Ivy League Eastern college, The Niceties explores the intellectual and emotional journeys of a respected history professor and her rebellious African-American student.

Ambitious and angry, Burgess' writing burns with an unrelenting ferocity. Her arguments are piercing and brutally honest; her logic fine-tuned and original. But the passion of the subject matter and the two antagonists often overwhelms the message itself. The dialogue is so dense and explosive that it frequently turns to cacophony, the characters shouting at each other simultaneously. The two women are not only polar opposites in their perspectives and experience, but they are each so extreme in their thinking and behavior as to make them alienating to the audience. There are times in the two-hour production when the viewer wishes to shout back at the haranguing characters who simply refuse to listen to each other. Neither can really claim the high moral ground in this verbal warfare, and neither is willing to compromise or truly learn from the confrontation. While the second act takes some steps toward conciliation, the divide is too deep, and the play ends with bitter lack of resolution.

Portland Stage has mounted an attractive and unsparing production of the material. Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian keeps the pace swift and the blocking kinetic despite the fact that the action is limited by the confines of a college office. She also has a fine ear for Burgess' rhythms and rapid shifts in tempo. Set designer Judy Gallen creates an elegant wood-paneled interior for the college office lit warmly by Devorah Kengmana. Anna Grywalksi's costumes appropriately define the differences in the two women's experiences. Sadah Espii Proctor provides a sound design that includes music from both generations of teacher and student, while Stage Manager Shane Van Vliet expertly keeps everything in balance.

The play is emotionally and dramatically demanding for the actors, and both Alexis Green as Zoe Reed and Susan Knight as Janine Bosko give no holds barred performances. Green tempers her character's militant anger with moments of vulnerability, while Knight captures perfectly the mixture of smug didacticism of a successful academic and the carefully disguised scars of a long struggle to achieve what she has.

Artistic Director Anita Stewart's program note frames The Niceties "as a cautionary tale with no winners." As such, it speaks to the terrifying state of political and social discourse and action in America.

Photo courtesy of Portland Stage, Aaron Flacke, photographer

The Niceties runs from April 3-22, 2018, at Portland Stage, 25 Forest Avenue, Portland , ME 207- 774-0465

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From This Author Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold

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