Jarrott Productions' The Niceties

In this staging of Eleanor Burgess' drama, the frictions of American society catch fire in an academic's office

Francesca Christian (l) as Janine and Jacqui Calloway as Zoe in The Niceties (Photo by Carlo Lorenzo Garcia)

Check your pulse.

If it's currently beating somewhat faster than normal, the way it might when you feel threatened, say, or are in a heated argument or other situation fraught with tension, then that just means your pulse is in sync with that of the nation – a nation in distress over divisions within it that deepen daily, with increasingly bitter and hateful speech hurled from side to side.

It means your pulse is also in sync with that of The Niceties, which is definitely in sync with that of the nation. The heart of Eleanor Burgess' of-the-moment drama is the racing thump-thump-thump of our country's current uncivil discourse – over race, over privilege, over gender, over generational character – and the play's two characters cover all of those topics with the same rancorous wrangling that can be heard across the land these days. And with every angry escalation of the issues here, Jarrott Productions' staging quickens the heart.

Oh, not at first. Early on, the play communicates no more tension than what a university student feels while awaiting her professor's feedback on a paper. And said professor's dry, literally old-school office (it's at an Ivy League college) would hardly seem a setting for combustible conflict. But as David Mamet's Oleanna instructed us a quarter of a century back, all it takes is one teacher, one student, and one sensitive subject treated insensitively, and that office might as well have been doused with gasoline and a match struck. It's going up in flames, with – spoiler, not a spoiler – the professor's job and reputation.

So it goes here. The subject this time is history – specifically, the American Revolu­tion. The student, Zoe, has built her paper on the novel thesis that the revolt wouldn't have succeeded had it not been for slavery. With the black underclass in chains, it couldn't rise up and conduct its own, more radical rebellion that might have derailed the moderate white one. The professor, Janine, isn't buying it. A scholar of revolutions – a fact telegraphed by portraits of Walesa, Mandela, Zapata, and Washington on her walls – she insists the historical record doesn't support the idea. To which Zoe responds, the historical record doesn't include black voices, since those who were enslaved weren't allowed to read or write. Because Janine, who's white, is less interested in the cultural thrust of the thesis than the historical method that proves it, she comes off as racially tone-deaf, which pushes Zoe, who's black, to fight harder for her theory. In the course of their struggle, we learn more about each: Zoe's a social justice warrior who spends every available moment on causes, comes from a privileged background, and hates libraries; Janine was a feminist activist back in the day, has a working-­class background, is a lesbian with a wife, and disdains research on the net. Much of this info, though, ends up fueling the feud between the two, as in: "You millennials." "OK, boomer."

To Burgess' credit, neither figure is ever totally right or totally wrong, and the actors here work hard to keep both fully human. As Janine, Francesca Christian projects patrician authority – upright, composed, always speaking with certainty. We see Janine's vanity and patronizing air, but Christian also reveals her vulnerability, as when she talks of learning what a lesbian is, how it gave her a word for something she felt inside but believed she was alone in feeling. The actor doesn't sentimentalize it in the telling; she speaks plainly, opening up Janine in a way that lets us see her instead of her emotions. As Zoe, Jacqui Calloway embodies the spirit of youthful activism – confident, ever-ready to take a stand, to speak out. That's what she does with Janine, despite her professor's age, experience, and power over her academically. The way Calloway's Zoe argues on conveys clearly the character's boldness and strength of will, but at times that tips over into willfulness and impatience, so Calloway shows us how Zoe will overreach or betray her own interests.

Director Jeremy Rashad Brown does his best to make this an even match (though he sometimes moves his actors into awkward spots around the stage, often facing the audience instead of each other). But Burgess has tipped the scales. Janine never quite lets go of her entitlement, ever after being laid low, so she never really grasps Zoe's position; you can't walk a mile in someone else's shoes if you don't take your own shoes off. And when Zoe speaks of her exhaustion being black in a white society – "I am so tired, so tired of remembering for the both of us" – there's no reply someone white can make that carries any weight.

Zoe's line is one of many in The Niceties that gives it timeliness and urgency. Its heartbeat is hard and fast and now. If that isn't important to you, well, check your pulse.

The Niceties

Trinity Street Playhouse, 901 Trinity
Through Feb. 2
Running time: 1 hr., 50 min.

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Jarrott Productions, Eleanor Burgess, Jeremy Rashad Brown, Jacqui Calloway, Francesca Christian

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