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"Third." By Wendy Wasserstein; directed by Daniel Sullivan.
At the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th St., NYC
Oct. - Dec. 11, 2005. (212) 239-6200.
There are very few scenes in "Third," Wendy Wasserstein's latest play, where Dianne Wiest -- as Professor Laurie Jameson -- does not smile, glance benevolently, look maternal And her course on new interpretations of Shakespeare is lively and provocative. Even Woodson Bull, III, nicknamed Third, a new student and a jock – he's on the wrestling team and plans to become a real-life Jerry McGuire – is excited.
But surprise of surprises, Prof. Jameson is as close to a feminist villain as contemporary drama and her creator, Wendy Wasserstein, permits. Hot flashes aside, her choices are outrageous. Still, the very complexity of her mischief is matched by the compelling threads of her life, which are coming unraveled. Her antagonist, Third (Jason Ritter), turns out to be a student of admirable character, impressive intelligence, energy and looks. He is too good to be true, but even his virtues become questionable in the hothouse environment of a small New England college. Prof. Jameson is the bewildered symptom of educational values run amok.
The crisis peaks over his term paper and her charge of plagiarism, but even before, every daily encounter uncovers problems. These are ordinary problems that we all handle daily, but the stage adds enough distance for discovery and it sharpens our perception of the pain of lives spinning beyond control. Laurie loves her family and her best friend, but she can barely help them. She celebrated when her older daughter came out of the closet and took off for Vermont -- with a prize-winning poet -- to make organic cheese. But the poet is unfaithful. Laurie's personable younger daughter (Gaby Hoffmann), a freshman at Swarthmore, has taken up with a college drop-out and makes a decision that refutes everything her mother stands for.
Laurie's best friend (Amy Aquino) is battling cancer, but she is a lone warrior who does not welcome support. At home, there is no sanctuary. Her husband, a failed scholar, has taken up weight-training; his wife has secured the international reputation. Her father (Charles Durning) doesn't remember her when the Alzheimer's is at its worst, but he talks about his favorite, brilliant daughter to her and invites her to dance in the moonlight. Tender, heartbreaking moments.
But these are the minor issues, lightly played. Wasserstein has painted them as the fabric of a life, a capsule of the inconveniences and responsibilities we all shoulder. Laurie's professional dilemma is more challenging. Having earned her stripes as a pioneer for women's, gays', and minority rights, she believes in a pantheon of demons: Republicans, mid-westerners, white men, athletes – the formerly empowered. So sure is she that Third fits too many of these categories, she decides his brilliant parsing of "King Lear" must be someone else's work. And so she wrecks his academic life – the scholarship, team competitions, and emotional balance.
There's more, but seeing it in the Mitzi E. Newhouse is far better than reading any critique, especially since all the performances, under the direction of Daniel Sullivan, are superlative. Production values are equally impressive: right-on costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser, marvelously flexible and evocative set by Thomas Lynch, and adept seasonal lighting by Pat Collins. In these months of stale revivals and concepts, "Third" dares to take a fresh look at the sacrosanct and still make us laugh and rejoice that we are living in interesting times. [Glenda Frank]
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