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CATF: In ‘The Niceties,’ academia vs. Frankenstein’s monster

Written By | Jul 23, 2017

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.VA., July 16, 2017 – For those not familiar with the continuing, disastrous decline of the American academic experience, Eleanor Burgess’ new play “The Niceties” explores with surprising frankness the warped educational environment that’s become all too common in this century. In this reviewer’s opinion, this probing, gripping, insightful drama is the best of CATF 2017’s six plays.

The situation

“The Niceties” isn’t actually very nice. This intimate, two-person drama begins innocently enough as Zoe (Margaret Ivey), an undergraduate minority student at an unnamed elite northeast university (Yale in disguise?), meets with her professor, Janine (Robin Walsh) to discuss her recently-submitted research paper. With catastrophic results.

Janine, a mid-to-late Boomer generation professor, offers the kind of critique most Boomers will readily recognize from their own college days. Janine gently quibbles over Zoe’s word choices and the quality of her fact- and source-referencing, argumentation, and persuasiveness.

In short, Janine’s critique focuses on the key elements that can transform a paper – or a news story, or an article, or a speech for that matter – into a great one by following the traditional rules of careful research, fine writing and artful persuasion.

Nothing to see here, right? Wrong.

The initially polite and respectful Zoe turns out to have a very big chip on her shoulder and quickly gets “triggered” by Janine’s insistence on the longstanding traditional rules of grammar and logic. Zoe’s aggressive reaction escalates into an uncontrollable, race-based fusillade of radical clichés and outright rage by Zoe, who, we quickly realize, is a highly skilled, highly-organized leftist radical in the current #BlackLivesMatter mode.

Picketing, demonstrating and outright violence are far more important, she declares, than wasting time on stuffy academic scholarship. After all, what’s left of the traditional American university system was built on the traditional literary, historical and philosophical Western canon and scholarly standards established long ago by that odious cadre of dead, white, oppressive European male elitists.

Zoe vows she’s not going to waste time on such “niceties” any more. Taking things even further, Zoe draws upon classic Gramscian and Alinskyite tactics to reverse roles and put Janine on the defensive. She escalates the matter, employing her cellphone to entrap and frame the earnestly left-liberal Janine, recording a video of their encounter that she will use to destroy her professor’s career.

The darker side of the American university experience

“The Niceties,” in short, is an alarming snapshot of the Stalinist creep that’s taken over a majority of taxpayer supported university campuses across our once-United States, obliterating the constitutionally-protected right to free speech on campus in the process.

While the characters of Janine and Zoe could be two-dimensional “types” in weaker dramatic hands, Burgess skillfully transforms them into real human beings, each of whom is trapped within the comfortable confines of ideological prisons that have been built for them, not actually by them.

Zoe has learned her lessons carefully. She is a dangerous, seething mass of hatred and fanatical ideology existing beyond either reason or compromise. Nearly anything anyone says will “offend” her. Once this student time-bomb is “triggered” by a simple, innocuous word or phrase that’s on her thoughtcrime list, the politics of personal destruction is her autonomic response.

Janine is shocked to be on the receiving end of Zoe’s fury. She’s the academic version of a “good girl.” She’s always gone along to get along, having spent her entire progressive life conforming to the shape-shifting progressive rules that progressive elites relish proclaiming. And besides, as she reveals at roughly the midpoint in this play, she’s a legally-wedded lesbian as well. In the current environment, that should make her just as “authentic” an oppressed minority as Zoe believes herself to be.

Wrong answer. Progressive definitions of victimhood today have evolved a rigid hierarchy, which doesn’t work in Janine’s favor. The fact that Janine is white drops her lower on the victim totem pole than Zoe, who is black. Even Janine’s lesbianism isn’t enough to overcome that ideological handicap. It’s classic Marxist class struggle revised and reloaded for the 21st century.

“The Niceties” morphs into Theater of the Absurd in a way that even Ionesco could not have imagined. It’s like a perverse variation on the bizarre late-1950s TV game show “Queen for a Day” (1956-1964). In this popular show, miserable, downtrodden female contestants competed to win that title – and a batch of prizes – by proving to the studio audience (via applause-o-meter) that their personal life-tragedies were far worse than those of their fellow victim-competitors. The sadder the tale of woe, the more enthusiastically the audience would react.

Progressive victimology tends to work the same way.

Mamet’s “Oleanna”: A precursor to “The Niceties”?

In many ways, “The Niceties” reminds us of an earlier dramatic trip into the twisted, Bizarro World of modern academia and ideology. We’re referring to David Mamet’s controversial 1992 play, “Oleanna,” which I had the good fortune to review for another site (DC Theatre Scene) during a Washington, D.C.-based production back in 2010. (Link to that review here.)

In Mamet’s play, a female student (Carol) is pitted against an older male professor (John) who, like Burgess’ Janine, is also on the verge of being granted tenure, that much-coveted pot of gold lying at the distant end of every academic’s career rainbow.

Read also: Oleanna

“Oleanna” has a somewhat slower fuse than “The Niceties.” But its student-professor confrontation builds in similar ways.

In both plays, we fail at first to grasp the true agenda lurking within the radicalized student-aggressors until it erupts in shocking fury. In Mamet’s play, Carol’s charge against her male professor is sexual harassment. In “The Niceties,” Zoe’s charge is her allegation of racial discrimination and harassment.

Both plays are morally ambiguous and intentionally so. However, each concludes with the destruction of a middle aged professor’s career and subsequent employment prospects, a tragic outcome that doesn’t remotely bother either student antagonist.

While Burgess must have had some familiarity with Mamet’s earlier play, however, “The Niceties” stands nicely on its own. While the frame tales of each are similar in their externals, Burgess’ play and the situation she portrays have evolved since the 1990s, and not in a positive way.

In “Oleanna,” the clash between the alleged male aggressor and the alleged female victim seemed somehow more clear cut. In “The Niceties,” however, we are dealing with dueling females, giving the definition of victimhood a finer granularity, which is harder to parse.

In both plays, we eventually learn that each student “victim” is “supported” by either outside or on-campus agitators. This leads us to suspect that these student “victims” may have been carefully scripted by their supporters to bring down their professors from the outset.

In both plays, the collective monster in the classroom is a rising generation of remorseless, hyper-sensitive student radicals who not only lack any grasp of logic or context. They are also hyper-attuned to pre-programmed, politically correct “triggers” – words, expressions or even assumptions – that send them into a towering, collective rage that requires a sacrificial victim – practically anyone who might blunder into one of their Byzantine network of traps.

Acting and Direction

Under Kimberly Senior’s deft direction, both Robin Walsh (Janine) and Margaret Ivey (Zoe) convincingly inhabit their deeply flawed characters. Both characters are dislikeable in their own ways, yet Walsh and Ivey fearlessly dive into their roles just the same. The result: We believe in and perhaps even sympathize with Janine and Zoe despite their tragic flaws and moral myopia, even though we might not want to know them personally.

As portrayed by Robin Walsh, Jeanine is the classic, cautious, guilt-ridden liberal-left professor, pathetically willing to “confess” to nearly anything to gain some measure of absolution for a thoughtcrime she may never have committed.

Margaret Ivey’s Zoe is a far more powerful character, though she’s powerful for all the wrong reasons – rigid ideology, a warped and biased view of history, and, above all, a clear hatred of contemporary white people, none of whom ever had anything to do with America’s early history of slavery. Janine may seem weak and pathetic at times. But Zoe is more consistent. She’s incapable of reason or remorse, which increases her power by an order of magnitude.

The moral of the tale?

The scariest thing about “The Niceties” is that the academic environment it portrays is not far removed from current reality. Those in the audience with a son or daughter in college right now should understand that in many ways, this play is most certainly not a fantasy. Whether they’re aware of it or not, American taxpayers and parents of college-age students are paying for a system that, for many of those students, will permanently stunt – and politicize – what should be their most intense period of intellectual growth and personal maturity.

“The Niceties” is quite a daring play for our times, taking on as it does a massive American educational and social tragedy that is frequently playing out on campus each year. It’s intellectually challenging, dramatically frightening, yet simultaneously subtle and wise.

While some may disagree, I’m putting “The Niceties” at the top of my list as the best, most interesting and in its own way the most daring play of CATF’s 2017 season. It dares to question current academic orthodoxy, and that’s a very good thing indeed.

Special note: A big hat tip to Robin Walsh (Janine), who stepped into this role only a week before “The Niceties” opened, due to the indisposition of the actress originally scheduled to play the part. Though still forced to read many of her lines directly from a script that cleverly doubled as Zoe’s “academic paper” during CATF’s opening weekend, Walsh scarcely skipped a beat, creating a fully realized and deeply sympathetic character in record time. Impressive. Brava!

Rating: **** (Four out of 4 stars)

To order tickets to Contemporary American Theater Festival, and for additional information, visit CATF online at or call the Box Office at 1-800-999-CATF (2283). Box Office hours are Monday through Friday from noon to 5 p.m. Single tickets range from $35 to $65. Packages range from $120 to $305. For more details, follow the CATF link above or check our CATF preview piece here.

Festival continues through July 30, 2017.

Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17