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Review: Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF): ‘The Niceties’

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Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties is a political play that takes the gloves off. It’s bare knuckled and it’s bloody, though no bones are broken and no souls crushed.

But who knows what tomorrow will bring.

Margaret Ivey and Robin Walsh. Photo by Seth Freeman.

Now, one might expect such rhetorical violence if Burgess had plopped Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in a sealed room for 90 minutes (though for rhetorical violence, let’s make that Paul Ryan).

And yes, sorry WWF fans, this violence is of the “sticks and stone will break my bones but words will never hurt me” variety (but after this show I’m not sure that platitude still applies).

These two bare knuckled fighters are both on the “left” side of the political spectrum.

Robin Walsh plays Janine, a highly regarded feminist historian at an elite east coast university. Her Janine is all cocksure about the American Revolution and America’s place in the world.

Margaret Ivey plays Zoe, the young African American, economically privileged, radical identity politics activist. Think “Black Lives Matter” but without the name tag.

The “niceties” of the title refers to all that high tea bullshit that frequently accompanies the chatter that privileged white people use when they are talking about oppression and its consequences. In other words, it would be “nice” if no more poor people died in the streets, and it would be “nice” if no more black people were gunned down by policemen, and it would be “nice” if no more slavery blighted the American landscape; but “change takes time,” so come talk to me in a hundred years.

Margaret Ivey. Photo by Seth Freeman.

When Janine pulls her power card, Zoe will have no more of it; and, suddenly, the political discourse between the liberal feminist establishment and the radical identity politics, African American youth begins to churn.

And Eleanor Burgess keeps it coming.

And Director Kimberly Senior keeps the jabs and counterpunches and wheelhouse rights flying like a championship prize fight between the heavy weight champ and the young ready-to-win upstart.

The Niceties is a 90-minute plus argument over the future of America, and it couldn’t be better wrought or more finely played. You’ll want to take sides but find yourself resisting the temptation: you’ll want the entire 15 rounds.

Robin Walsh and Margaret Ivey are perfectly matched and embody Burgess’ characters to gaze and grimace.

Robin Walsh. Photo by Seth Freeman.

Ms. Walsh’s professor knows about political correctness, but unfortunately, she’s not up-to-date. She couldn’t be more understanding, as long as you let her hold all the cards.

Ms. Ivey’s student is as fiery an activist as you’ll ever meet: she truly is every professor’s worst nightmare. In the realm of inflated egos, she’s the sharpest pin in the hat box.

Jesse Dreikosen has created the perfect logocentric office, with hundreds of books littered around the room. And there’s even floor moulding to providing the two ladies a better sense of enclosure.

John Ambrosone did the lights and David Remedios the sound.

No one would argue with the insight that today’s politics is a mess. The discourse between right and left is a hopeless muddle of linguistic gymnastics designed to keep the public in the dark about what anyone means.

If you want some clarity on the progressive side of the political equation, however, Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties cuts through the muddle and lays bare the undercurrents shaping our world.

And you’ll be totally engrossed on the journey.

Running Time: 90 minutes plus, with one intermission.

The Niceties and The Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) continue through July 30, 2017. Tickets to CATF and for Wild Horses can be purchased through the Theater Festival Box Office, by calling (800) 999-CATF (2283), or by purchasing them online.

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