With the dysfunctional Republican administration imploding and the Democrats looking on ineffectually, unable to summon much confidence in a viable alternative, the current low in American politics seems like perfect timing for the multichanneled anger and reproach in “Third.” But Wendy Wasserstein’s new play — her best in years — is thematically richer and more emotionally satisfying than any mere political screed. While the writing strays at times into didacticism, director Daniel Sullivan and his flawless cast extract heartening depths of humor, wisdom and poignancy from this story of a woman’s self-reassessment as she heads into the third part of her life.
In 1988’s “The Heidi Chronicles,” Wasserstein brought rueful insight to the lessons and lesions accumulated by a character whose emergence paralleled the evolution of the women’s movement. She brings similar wit and candor here to another social comedy strongly rooted in the politics of its time frame.
The focus in “Third” is an uncompromising woman who was a pioneering force in the patriarchal world of New England liberal arts academia, confronted with the sad realization that her energies are largely being spent opposing all she condemns rather than passionately supporting anything she believes in.
Opening in late 2002, when America was gearing up for war in Iraq, the play hurls its share of bile at the bullying Bush government and the “dangerously regressive climate” it has fostered. But the most piercing arrows are those aimed at rigid liberals whose knee-jerk categorization of the right-wing establishment and its spawn renders them blind to the possibilities of individuality, erasing any identity beyond superficial enemy labels.
It’s the suffocating confinement of this mentality that the play addresses. But despite the melancholy strain running through it, this is in its way an optimistic, generous and uncynical work, advocating above all the need to seek common ground.
College professor Laurie Jameson (Dianne Wiest) describes her classroom as “a hegemonic-free zone,” informing her freshmen students right off that their mission is to eliminate “heterosexist, racist or classist barriers.” In her “Uncorseting Elizabethan Drama” class, Laurie shares her view of “King Lear”: “Goneril and Regan were right. Lear was an old, foolish, narcissistic man whose personal tragedy is overrated and the good daughter, Cordelia, was a masochistic simp.”
Into this p.c. environment, where no figure is more demonized than the “privileged paternal white man” (Lear being the ultimate example), steps cocky, athletic Midwesterner Woodson Bull III (Jason Ritter), who goes by the family nickname “Third.”
An aspiring sports agent whose father and grandfather attended the college when it was still a men-only campus, Third is a sociology major who rankles Laurie with his unapologetic admission that he’s taking her course because “I need some humanities credits.” Conflicts between his writing assignments and wrestling team obligations only stoke Laurie’s hostility.
When Third turns in an unexpectedly coherent, publication-worthy paper on “King Lear” that radically opposes the professor’s take on the play, Laurie refuses to believe it was written by a scholar of his limited background. She charges him with plagiarism, insisting that he defend his paper before the school’s Committee of Academic Standards. Third responds that her problem with him is based on other factors: “I’m straight. I’m white. I’m male. And I happen to like America,” he says. “And you’re also a Republican,” she replies, based on assumption. “Don’t leave that out.”
In Laurie and Third, Wasserstein has written two complex characters through whom she explores questions of power and choice in honest, human terms.
Laurie’s determination to bring down Third based on unproven suspicions makes her not unlike Sister Aloysius in “Doubt.” But the professor’s crusade is driven more by what her student represents than what he might have done. “This man’s type of easygoing, insidious charm and amoral intelligence will continue to be rewarded with the most powerful positions in this country,” she says.
While the fallout of the plagiarism inquiry both for Third and Laurie is the play’s center, this almost becomes background to other factors impacting the professor’s life: menopausal mood swings and hot flashes (which amplify an undercurrent of sexual tension in her scenes with Third); bitter rage at the U.S. entry into Iraq (“You have to watch this government like a hawk”); distance from her husband, who is never seen and who has his own midlife agenda; disapproval that her daughter, Emily (Gaby Hoffmann), is dating an unambitious college dropout; sadness over the loss of her friendship with fellow professor Nancy (Amy Aquino), battling breast cancer; and the accelerating slide into dementia of her father (Charles Durning), Laurie’s own Lear.
Some of Wasserstein’s monologues are a little schematic in their function, but the playwright has written a number of quietly affecting two-character scenes, creating dynamic conflicts and uncovering raw, complicated emotions.
Scenes between Laurie and Emily, who wants out from her parents’ stifling environment of intellectual arrogance, say a lot about the way Laurie has allowed ideologies to shape her relationships. Likewise, exchanges between Laurie and Nancy, who opposes her in the inquiry, are loaded with challenging truths and feelings of betrayal.
It’s Nancy who alerts Laurie that her lifelong aim to expand perspectives has been somehow twisted, resulting in her dogmatic attempt to shut down Third’s mind because of what she believes he stands for. Her history of breaking men is eloquently revealed when Laurie departs on a personal tangent during a lecture, recalling an argument on her first date with her husband over the sexual politics of “Pride and Prejudice.”
The play was originally presented as half of an evening of two one-acts in D.C. last year, and some of Wasserstein’s fleshing-out reads awkwardly. Most notable is a scene in which Third challenges his close-minded, so-called liberal fellow students during an open-microphone session in the school dining hall. We don’t need him to expound on themes already illustrated in subtler ways; this is a smarter play than that.
Wiest’s work here is simply wonderful; her warmth and crackling intelligence make Laurie’s vulnerability, frustration and eventual humbling self-realization all the more wrenching and keep her from becoming unsympathetic. What’s more surprising is that Ritter is every bit Wiest’s equal, expertly peeling away layers of appearance to reveal that Third amounts to much more as a person than he initially presents. Despite limited stage experience, Ritter’s command never falters; his closing scene with Wiest is performed with such naturalness and delicacy it makes the play’s second-act weaknesses seem unimportant.
With limited stage time, Hoffmann draws a smart, likable character. She scores perhaps the play’s most engaging scene when she wanders into a bar where Third is working, allowing him to vent against her mother without identifying herself. Deftly avoiding cliche, Aquino navigates a beautiful transition from acerbic defensiveness to a new openness, making a conscious choice to embrace life: “It was too much work hating everything,” she says.
Durning’s sad, soulful turn is made even more touching by the difficulty of separating his character’s frailty from this twinkly eyed national treasure of an actor’s advancing years.
An old hand with Wasserstein’s plays, Sullivan is right on the money, bringing shrewd timing to the playwright’s witty dialogue but also allowing each scene the breathing space for its emotional and intellectual nuances to collect. Craft backup is impeccable, from Thomas Lynch’s simple yet stately wood-paneled sets to Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s character-defining costumes to Pat Collins’ autumnal lighting.