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Review: ‘The Niceties’ at Riverside Theatre stirs up critical debates
Riverside Theatre brings powerful play to Iowa City stage
IOWA CITY — Riverside Theatre stages flawless productions — affording playwrights and actors the opportunity to breathe life into flawed characters and flawed lives that fling open windows into the times in which we live.
Such is the case with “The Niceties,” which opened Friday night to audible reactions throughout the show, with audience members erupting into cheers and leaping to their feet at the end.
This stellar production continues through March 27, with a seating configuration that places viewers on either side of the stage, pulling them into the action and underscoring the versatility of the theater’s new home at 119 E. College St., on the city’s vibrant Ped Mall.
If you go
What: “The Niceties” by Eleanor Burgess
Where: Riverside Theatre, 119 E. College St., Iowa City
When: To March 27; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $15 to $35, box office, (319) 259-7099 or riversidetheatre.org/the-niceties/
COVID protocols: Masks required; proof of vaccination and state-issued ID or present a 72-hour (or less) negative COVID-19 test.
Merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nicety defines a “nicety” as “the quality or state of being nice; an elegant, delicate, or civilized feature; a fine point or distinction; subtlety; careful attention to details; delicate exactness; precision.”
That I used an online dictionary to pinpoint the definition of any word would rankle the character of Janine Bosko, a tenured history professor at an elite Northeastern college where in late March 2016, tuition is $67,000 a year.
Bosko, inhabited expertly by Riverside co-founder Jody Hovland, is the picture of polish and panache, a middle-aged white woman who seeks to make her students ready to lead.
Impeccably dressed, she sits behind a large desk in her office where a bookcase contains the writings of brilliant minds who have thoroughly researched historical episodes that have shaped nations and critical thought. This is what she most admires.
In walks Zoe Reed, a junior political science major eager to receive feedback on her paper about the American Revolution from the Black point of view. Crystal Marie Stewart is incandescent in this role that challenges not only the professor, but the audience to see and hear the way subjugation has shaped not only the Black experience in America, but the fabric of American life.
The first words Zoe hears are, “You’re missing a comma here.” Janine loves words, and wants them used properly and within parallel sentence structure — sounding very much like an English professor.
Zoe agrees, but really wants to know what Janine thinks about her thesis that America was able to have a moderate revolution because of slavery.
Janine countered that was not a good fit for the evidence, especially the lack thereof, and was appalled to learn that Zoe turned to the internet for research. This new wave of technology that Janine abhors would soon crash around them both.
What starts as the epitome of niceties, with “delicate exactness” and “careful attention to detail,” quickly devolves into an impassioned and embittered argument.
Janine accuses Zoe of “using personal feelings to embellish on the past,” charging her to look at the evidence, not her gut instincts.
The chasm between their life experiences and beliefs quickly becomes too deep and wide to bridge, with accusations spewed by both sides. Zoe just wants to be heard, and for her history to be taught. Janine is sick and tired of “you people,” which drew quick reaction from the audience — and Zoe — causing Janine to explain she meant “millennials,” not people of color.
Deep seated beliefs and anger on both sides bubble to the surface, with the flash point coming when Zoe demands that Janine admit she’s racist.
Both actors are powerhouse players, and the revelation of each layer of life experience builds into their own kind of revolution, leading to an explosion with consequences neither could imagine.
The words and performances are so dynamic, shaped by director Curtis M. Jackson of Chicago, who electrified Riverside Theatre audiences in “The Agitators” in the winter of 2020.
He expertly sums up the experience in his director’s notes: “We have two American women in a room, on two separate occasions, and we’ll learn how they fit into one of the most important functions of America, our history taught through education. …
“Viewing this play requires you to fully listen to the answers she’ll provide before placing any judgment. It may be uncomfortable, exhilarating and infuriating, but you’re allowed to be honest with yourself, and if you’re brave enough, determine where you fit into these discussions.”
The play ends so explosively that all I remember is being stunned. And grateful that when they lights came back up, Hovland and Stewart smiled at each other and touched hands in a kind of high-five embrace that allowed us all to breathe and begin processing what we had just witnessed.
Playwright Eleanor Burgess has crafted a play for all time, especially this time, shining a light on issues that send us deep within ourselves to question how we fit into them all. That I went to bed thinking about it and woke up thinking about, pondering the weight of the words, points to this play’s power. I’ll be thinking about this one for a very long time.
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