What better environment is there than a small New England college campus to address the kind of socio-political agenda that has prompted most, if not all, of Wendy Wasserstein’s plays beginning most memorably in 1988 with the Pulitzer and Tony award winner "The Heidi Chronicles?" If a few of Wasserstein’s plays in the past 17 years haven’t quite measured up to their initial promise, she is back with a play that is as timely as it topical and as emotionally satisfying as it is intellectually stimulating.
Director Daniel Sullivan and a first-rate cast dig deeply and resolutely into the unexpected shifts and spins of Wasserstein’s very real human beings. "Third" is set in a blue state college that is amusingly established as a nurturing ground for radical thought and progressive activism. It is the academic year 2002-’03, at the time the Bush administration is embarking on its mission to invade and occupy Iraq, and perceived conservatism is showing up in the strangest places.
At the college’s educational core is middle-aged English professor Laurie Jameson (Dianne Wiest), whose aggressively feminist ideology and activism have been a pioneering influence. It also appears to be set in stone. Despite her intelligence and ready wit, Jameson is notably rigid in her disaffection for the red states and an uncompromising intolerance for the policies of President Bush and his right wing ("You have to watch this government like a hawk.")
Because freshman Woodson Bull III (Jason Ritter) is from a red state, a jock, and presumed by Jameson to be a Republican, she is almost predisposed to challenge his scholarship and honesty. She is further alienated by his declaration that he wants to become a sports agent and that he is only taking her course because he needs a humanity credit. Jameson not only assumes Woodson Bull III is rich (why not with a name like that?), but also believes he is incapable of writing the highly sophisticated analysis of King Lear that he has handed in.
A Groton graduate and now a sociology major with a wrestling fellowship, Third (Woodson’s nickname) makes it quite clear to Jameson that he is not only well-versed in Shakespeare but also is a real fan of King Lear. He asserts that he has purposely taken a more Freudian perspective of Lear, in contrast to Jameson, who asserts that Goneril and Regan were "right," that Lear was "old, foolish, and narcissistic, the epitome of the ultimate privileged paternal white man," and that Cordelia was a "masochistic simp."
Despite his well-reasoned and excellently-written paper Jameson refuses to believe him and charges him with plagiarism. Although she has nothing to back up her accusation she insists he defend his paper before the college’s Committee of Academic Standards. He does this but almost more significantly declares "I’m straight, I’m white, and I’m male. And I happen to like America," in response to professor Jamison’s expressed doubt. The similarity between the professor’s unfounded self-righteous assumptions and those of the Catholic school teacher in John Patrick Shanley’s play "Doubt" is palpable. Largely the result of an opinion expressed by Nancy Gordon (Amy Aquino), a cancer-stricken professor who has read the paper, Third is vindicated, but Gordon’s siding with him puts a strain on her friendship with Jameson.
At home and trying not to lose her grip, Jameson copes peripherally with her professor husband (unseen), who keeps dropping exercise weights from a room above. More specifically she contends with her rebellious daughter, Emily (Gaby Hoffmann), a Swarthmore student who to Jameson’s dismay, is dating a much older man. More affecting is the tender relationship with between Jameson and her father, Jack (Charles Durning), who is in an advanced state of Alzheimer’s.
The play’s excellence is defined by its dialogue which, though occasionally didactic, is often dazzlingly smart. Besides its reference to the nickname of the young man who serves as its catalyst, the title also refers to the third part of Jameson’s life, which brings the theme – the danger of becoming that very thing you have been battling against – full circle, with Jameson completing the journey from being a woman who has always denounced everything she has vilified to becoming a woman capable of being open and receptive to
All of Wassertstein’s complex characters eventually become the beneficiary or the provocateur of their respective change of heart and mind. The affectionate arrogance that propels Wiest’s invigorating performance makes her winning even as menopausal hot flashes invade her testy encounters with the unaffectedly disarming Ritter. Hoffman offers a strong and sensible image of the daughter who would have liked more than her mother’s ideology to frame their relationship.
There are many fine and illuminating scenes including an unwittingly revelatory encounter at a local pub between Third, who is working there, and Emily, who refrains from telling him that she is Jameson’s daughter despite hearing him vent his anger with her. A lecture by Jameson on "Pride and Prejudice," in which she becomes distracted by thoughts of a date years ago with her husband and an impassioned dining hall speech by Third in which he fires back at the students’ narrow-minded, liberal-based biases, are compelling as well as insightful reflections of these two almost equally persuasive characters. The disappointment in her deteriorating friendship with Jameson is sensitively expressed in Aquino’s performance. Durning shines poignantly as Jameson’s father, whom we see gradually fading in fits and starts into his own world while holding on to his daughter’s hand.
Sullivan has gotten everything right, from the perfect pacing of the scenes to inspiring an exemplary tone of honesty from the actors. Also right on are Thomas Lynch’s mobile yet unobtrusive set design, Pat Collins’ exemplary lighting and costumer Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s campus-conscious attire.
More than an expansion of a one-act play previously seen in Washington, D.C., "Third" represents an expansion of Wasserstein’s impressive and increasingly realized talent. She is also to be commended for writing a play that speaks to where we are today without fear that it may ultimately resonate with less immediacy in the future.
Third, through December 18. Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. $70 to $75. 212-239-6200.