f we’re going to get past this red state/blue state polarization nonsense, writers are going to have to pitch in. Op-ed pundits, speechwriters and (yes) playwrights need to start blending us into purple, not just by appealing to areas of commonality but also — the tougher task — challenging each side to consider its own blind spots. The late Wendy Wasserstein’s final play “Third” makes a notable contribution in this regard, and it’s honored by an impeccable Geffen Playhouse production featuring a luminous turn by Christine Lahti as Laurie Jameson, world-famous radical-feminist lit professor and true believer.
Laurie’s classroom at a prestigious, ivy-covered New England college (Vince Mountain’s changing foliage out the bay window plant us comfortably in academe) is “a hegemonic-free zone” where all standard interpretations are to be questioned. Yet the outside world starts forcing her into her own reinterpretations, and she doesn’t like it. In her 50s, her body is changing (has anyone ever found more variety in hot flashes than Lahti here?), and we’re about to invade Iraq. Dad (M. Emmet Walsh) is declining with Alzheimer’s; best friend Nancy (Jayne Brook) is battling breast cancer; and daughter Emily (Sarah Drew) is dropping out of Swarthmore to live with a bank teller, for Pete’s sake.
Prof. Jameson’s response to these dizzying changes is to proclaim “I still know what I know!,” and one thing she knows is that a blond, straight, Groton-graduated wrestler-student named Woodson Bull III (Matt Czuchry) could not have authored a sophisticated, publication-worthy Freudian analysis of “King Lear.” Her socioeconomic profiling becomes an obsession; if she can’t stop George W. Bush, by God she can stop “Third,” as the boy is nicknamed.
Wasserstein could as readily have described a conservative academic’s underestimation of a campus leftist, but she knew that critiques of liberal orthodoxy are ubiquitous on talkradio but almost unknown in the theater. (Lately, we’ve got Bruce Norris’ “The Pain and the Itch” and … that’s about it.)
For the contempo audience, especially given Wasserstein’s impeccable progressive credentials, “Third” can’t help but raise hackles in suggesting that the Left’s assumptions, forged in the fires of the antiwar ’60s, need to be continually reassessed lest they petrify. No traitor to her views, scribe is brave enough to point out that a professed commitment to openness and free inquiry may serve to shield behavior actually designed to shut down minds.
“Third,” however, is no polemic. It remains fun through helmer Maria Mileaf’s effortless orchestration of a quintet of nuanced performances. Brook’s heartbreaking Nancy — almost certainly a surrogate for Wasserstein, who passed away within four months of play’s Gotham premiere — coolly maintains her wit, keen observation and empathy even while wracked with pain. Walsh subtly captures those excruciating moments when dementia seems to be receding, doubly painful when hope is dashed a heartbeat later.
Drew’s unaffected honesty adds greater impact to the home-truth zingers aimed at mom, and her barroom scene with Third, ignorant of her identity, set the opening night audience roaring. Raised veins on the side of Czuchry’s neck indicate that he pushes too much; finding more stillness would make Third even more formidable. Still, his brand of brash Midwestern earnestness is perfectly calibrated to drive Laurie nuts.
Show is ultimately a triumph for Lahti, whose delicate shadings of emotion engage our sympathy even as Laurie’s positions become untenable and downright irrational. Her classroom breakdown (while describing how Jane Austen brought her together with her husband) is a stunning demonstration of the power of the acting art.
“Third” is by no means a perfect play, thin in places and sometimes too explicit thematically. Laurie doesn’t get to defend her views as cogently as she could; Third himself is a bit too good to be true; and the “King Lear” parallels seem forced, especially when a rain-battered Jack goes raging on the heath — sorry, the quad. But Wasserstein’s goal was to bring Laurie Jameson from blind rage to enlightenment, and stacking the deck a bit was a price she didn’t mind paying.
In sending Laurie out to rethink the last third of her life, Wasserstein must have been cognizant of her own borrowed time, but one likes to think she was even more mindful of the country that, as her body of work proves, she loved deeply. Not uncritically, but in the way of the clear-eyed idealist — there’s that ’60s passion for you — who hasn’t given up on America, already one-third of the way through its third century.