The Niceties

Summer Ainsworth and Kate Konigisor star in Shadowland Stages’ production of Eleanor Burgess’s The Niceties in Ellenville. Original photos by Jeff Knapp.
Who’s right: the old white history professor or the young black revolutionary?

By Andrew Andrews

Janine Bosko is a tenured professor of American history at a prestigious Connecticut university and a sought-out expert on revolution here and abroad.

Her student, Zoe Reed, a radical revolutionist, believes America was able to unify against Britain because slaves were already excluded from equality, and has written a term paper filled with conjecture and unreliable sources to make her point.

Janine’s heart seems to be in the right place, wanting Zoe to succeed and offering to sacrifice her weekend to help make Zoe’s work more palatable to the status quo.

Zoe’s heart, too, seems to be in the right place, but believes it’s time to stop tempering messages to suit the establishment, instead wanting to force her truth down its gagging throat and start an academic revolution over the American Revolution.

Under a framed portrait of George Washington in Janine’s office, the argument between teacher and pupil slowly escalates into a physical confrontation that leads to more trouble than either of these strong personalities is able to bear.

“It takes work to not be a bad person,” Zoe says. “You can’t just be the least bad person in a lineup and call yourself good.”

“The thing is, Zoe, if you you make it too difficult to be a good person, you all of a sudden make people strangely comfortable with being a bad person.”

As much a story about generational differences as race relations, The Niceties brings to mind the different viewpoints of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the civil rights movement.

The calm before the storm.

I’ve heard great things about Shadowland Stages and was looking forward to attending The Niceties as my first performance by the company. As the inaugural production in their black box Studio, I wondered, too, if this show would live up to the hype that’s been driven by Shadowland’s Main Stage productions around the corner.

I’ll tell you right now: The Niceties didn’t meet my expectations.

IT BLEW THEM AWAY.

Firstly, Eleanor Burgess’s script for two actors is as powerful as they come. Both characters are larger than life, unwavering in their convictions as they engage each other with the best intentions. The dialogue is sharp as a knife and relentless as an Ironman contestant; it’s amazing how two opposing viewpoints can both seem so sound and so right at the same time!

Secondly, the performance I attended was every bit as phenomenal as the script. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for two actors to (pretend to) be at each other’s throats for what seems like forever, yet Summer Ainsworth and Kate Konigisor somehow managed to deliver their parts as though they were living them first hand.

The Niceties is presented in the round on a handsome set that nonetheless accommodates the view from every seat. Speaking of which: I wish every seat in every black box theatre was as spacious and comfortable as mine was during this performance!

Kudos to artistic director Brendan Burke and director Jammie Patton for finding such a talented cast and nurturing this must-see performance. Even if you have to drive an hour or more through pouring rain (as I did), your only regret will be that every show isn’t as worthy of a standing ovation as this.

5

Andrew Andrews attended The Niceties at Shadowland Stages Studio in Ellenville on Friday, October 29, 2021 @ 8:00pm to write this review.

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