Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Also see Bill's review of Long Day's Journey into Night
The Niceties was developed at the 2017 Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, and originally produced in 2018 at the Huntington Theatre in Boston in association with the McCarter Theatre Center and Manhattan Theatre Club.
The set up is fairly simple. A professor and an undergraduate student meet to discuss her paper on slavery during the American Revolution, ostensibly to refine it. What ensues is a power struggle across a racial and generational divide. Rarely has a two-character play maintained such equality. For me, it felt like being on a see-saw: the professor is up, no the student is, no ... Along the way much more than race relations is examined. A first act sequence in which the professor gets caught up, holding on to preconceived ideas for dear life, resonates particularly strongly.
The first act is intellectually and emotionally true until the final three to four minutes when it slips just a bit, then recovering brilliantly for a more nuanced second act that ends in the only way these two characters can. I commend Urbanite Theatre for their ability to continually find fascinating plays.
The piece is served by two extraordinary performers. It is startling to remember that less than eight weeks ago Bonita Jackson (here as Zoe, the student) was on stage with Asolo Conservatory's production of As You Like It as a lively Rosalind. Here her eyes flash fire as protector of all things progressive, especially a radicalized view of race history. This is a young woman of great talents. Kate Young is her opposite as Janine, the history professor. She is superb just not getting blown right off the stage by the ferocity of Jackson's Zoe. The performance by Ms. Young is solid, full of nuance.
Director Natalie Novacek is based in Minneapolis and makes her Urbanite debut. She keeps balances even, and the play never looses its crackle. Ryan Finzelber does multiple duties here, as production manager as well as scenic and lighting designer. His office setting feels lived in, completely realistic. Sofia Gonzalez designed the costumes, which are contemporary street attire.
Urbanite Theatre has another winner to open the season. The subject of race is not a comfortable one for many of us. The Niceties does an exciting job examining a complex issue.
The Niceties, through June 30, 2019, at Urbanite Theatre, 1487 2nd St., Sarasota FL. Visit www.urbanitetheatre.com for tickets and information.