Regina Monique is excellent as a student who challenges her history professor in Shotgun Players’ timely “The Niceties” online in its final performances July 17-18. (Courtesy Jayme Catalano)

Shotgun Players’ ‘Niceties’ perfect for these times

SF Playhouse Zoomlets take audiences behind the scenes

Amid the dizzying array of Zoom readings now streaming, Shotgun Players’ production of Eleanor Burgess’ drama “The Niceties,” set in 2016, is such a perfect choice, not just for Zoom technology but also thematically for these times. And it’s so beautifully executed that it raises the bar for what theaters can potentially achieve online.

A two-hander, it’s directed briskly, and with precision, by Leigh Rondon-Davis.

A professor (white, a baby boomer, a lesbian) meets in her office with an ambitious undergraduate student (Black, a millennial, an activist). Young Zoe is ostensibly there to discuss the assignment she recently turned in, for which she expects an A, but her agenda is much bigger than that. In her paper, she has challenged many of the early American history lessons that Janine, the professor, has been teaching. Janine is impressed but wants her to do more research on her subject in order to earn an A. Thus the conflicts begin.

During the course of the two acts, those conflicts veer from the political to the deeply personal and back again. The vast differences between the generations, racism, feminism, white liberal guilt, Black rage, the legacy of slavery, the lies and the truths of history — they are all encapsulated here in a way that’s downright unsettling, even disturbing, whatever your age or race or deeply held beliefs. “You have a picture of a racist criminal on your wall!” Zoe accuses Janine, pointing to a picture of George Washington. (Excellent digital backgrounds are by Celeste Martore.)

And, “Don’t be angry about slavery! Be angry about what’s happening now,” pleads the well-intentioned Janine, who at times, provoked by the tough-minded and implacable Zoe, blurts out ill-considered comments.

There’s a lot at stake for both women—indeed, their entire futures—during the course of the debate, and Scarlett Hepworth as Janine and Regina Monique as Zoe play those stakes for all they’re worth, both fully engaged and emotionally connected.

Unlike most Zoom plays, this one is available only as a live performance (there are two left at 7 p.m. July 17-18), and the actors are off-book and well-rehearsed. Even the little physical moments work: When Janine hands Zoe a helpful book (which Zoe will of course never read), or a cup of coffee, the execution of those little gestures between frames on a grid is smooth and believable. In fact, most of the time it’s easy to forget that the two women are not actually leaning across a desk to confront each other.

Tickets are $8-$40; visit shotgunplayers.org. (Next up: “Quack” by Eliza Clark, in August)

Behind the scene at SF Playhouse

For anyone interested in how directors and playwrights work with actors on new scripts, San Francisco Playhouse’s ongoing free “Zoomlet” series at sfplayhouse.org allows for a peek into that process. This may be the only theater right now that’s offering that type of inside look.

The latest is Patricia Cotter’s new short two-hander, “The Rules of Comedy.”

Actors Jeremy Kahn and Avanthika Srinivasan appear on the Zoom grid (along with Cotter and director Jessica Holt) for this prototype first rehearsal, which begins with extensive introductions among the four (and proclamations of mutual admiration) but gets more interesting for viewers when Holt talks about the script. “What do you do when you’re going through great loss and suffering?” she asks the actors. “We are going through really hard times,” she adds, “and we need comedy.”

In the play, a grief-stricken woman, struggling to find joy in her life, is taking comedy lessons from a sad-sack, second-rate standup comic who teaches out of his apartment. The catch is, the student is just not funny — she’s in fact lost her sense of humor, she says. (Perhaps she never had one.) And he himself is striving to find the humor in life. He’s recovering from a broken heart.

It’s a delicious setup, and, like many plays written during this pandemic, it’s simple enough to be transferrable to a digital format.

It begs for future development: more depth of character, more revelation. Maybe even more bad jokes, as the director and playwright agree in a post-reading onscreen chat. After that, maybe another rehearsal, with the same fine actors, later down the line, as we wait for theaters to reopen?

Theater

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