Professional Nonprofit Theater on Martha's Vineyard
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The Niceties Returns, More Relevant Than Ever

by Louisa Hufstader, Vineyard Gazette

After a compelling online production of The Niceties by the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse last October, Amy Brenneman and Tsilala Brock reprised their roles in Eleanor Burgess’s play for a live Zoom performance Monday night. A video recording of the show is streaming through April 4 at mvplayhouse.org.

Tackling black history, white privilege and the nature of historical “evidence” in a taut and smart two acts, The Niceties has accomplished the rare feat of becoming more relevant with every year since its 2018 premiere. Events over the few months since the last playhouse production — chiefly the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, but also the increasingly public discussions of slavery, racism and reparations — have further heightened the timeliness of Ms. Burgess’s incisive play.

Tsilala Brock again plays the driven college student Zoe Reed, whose term paper rests on her assertion that “(a) successful American revolution was only possible because of slavery.”

Amy Brenneman returns as professor Janine Bosco, a historian specializing in revolutionary movements who idolizes America’s founding fathers, displays a portrait of George Washington in her office and is unimpressed by her student’s approach.

“Your thesis is not an explanation that any scholar of the period would agree with,” she says matter-of-factly. “It’s not a good fit for the available evidence.”

How Zoe unpacks that argument — and how both characters react to their disagreement — is the crux of The Niceties, and can’t be detailed without spoiling the suspense that grows throughout Ms. Burgess’s play.

As in October, The Niceties is directed by Joann Green Breuer, a playhouse veteran skilled in character development. Among the show’s fierce pleasures is the way Ms. Brock’s Zoe discovers unexpected sides — and downsides — of her activism, while her professor learns that expertise does not mean having all the answers.

Ms. Brenneman’s performance as the breezily confident professor will strike a chord, and quite possibly a nerve. The Niceties is set at “an elite northeastern college” that could easily be Yale, the playwright’s alma mater. Ms. Brenneman herself graduated from Harvard, where Ms. Breuer was a drama instructor.

Almost anyone who has disagreed with an authority figure is likely to recognize at least some of the stages of resistance — condescension, dismissiveness, irritation and anger among them — that Ms. Brenneman’s character exhibits under her student’s increasing pressure.

Zoe, too, has reasons to squirm from time to time. The Niceties ends without a clear victory for either character.

Watching a two-person play on Zoom may seem like the very definition of “all talk, no action,” but Ms. Burgess’s dialogue, and the two actors’ committed performances, transcend the medium in this riveting production.

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