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Returning to the mirror of a play

Christine Lahti could be a Wendy Wasserstein character -- a bond felt one more time in 'Third.'

September 16, 2007|Sean Mitchell | Special to The Times

When Christine Lahti took over the title role in Wendy Wasserstein's "The Heidi Chronicles" on Broadway in 1989, she began a lasting association with the playwright that continued through Lifetime's adaptation of "An American Daughter" in 2000 (later renamed "Trial by Media") and continues now, after Wasserstein's death, with the West Coast premiere of her final play, "Third."

"I felt she was writing me," Lahti remembers thinking about the playwright and her best-known heroine ("Heidi" won both the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award). "I felt such a kindred spirit. We became instant friends."

Wasserstein died of lymphoma in January 2006 at the age of 55, only months after "Third" made its debut in a limited run at Lincoln Center, with Dianne Wiest in the leading role that Lahti will play at the Geffen Playhouse. This production, directed by Maria Mileaf, is not only the first on the West Coast but is just the second anywhere. It opens Wednesday.

The last time Lahti saw Wasserstein was at a preview of "Third" in New York. She spotted the playwright in the lobby at intermission, although she wasn't absolutely sure. "I knew she was sick, but I hadn't talked to her in a while," the actress says after a rehearsal one afternoon in Westwood, "and I saw this elderly woman with gray hair and she had a cane and I said, 'Wendy?' and she said, 'No!' Then I said, 'Oh, sorry' and went back to my seat. But it was driving me crazy because I was sure that was her."

'I have to do this play'

Before Act 2 started, Lahti saw Andre Bishop, the head of Lincoln Center, talking to the same woman, who had now taken the seat Lahti knew was reserved for the playwright during previews.

She went over again and said, "Excuse me, Wendy, I know it's you,' and then, Lahti recalled, Wasserstein said, " 'Oh, my God, Christine, I didn't recognize you!' She was so used to matinee ladies bothering her, and she was so sick. I didn't mention the illness -- she obviously didn't want to talk about it, it was this elephant in the room -- but I was so moved by the first act, I said, 'Wendy, I have to do this play in L.A., you know that.'

"And she laughed and said, 'That would be wonderful.' I hadn't even seen the second act, but I was already convinced that I had to play this part. And that was the last time I talked to her."

The part that Lahti was determined to play is that of Laurie Jameson, a frontline feminist English professor of a certain vintage joined in battle at an Eastern liberal arts college with a cocky young wrestler (Matt Czuchry, of "Gilmore Girls") whose term paper on "King Lear" she believes has been plagiarized. The wrestler's name is Woodson Bull III, and his prep school nickname, "Third," lends the play its title.

Professor Jameson's vintage is, like that of Heidi and Wasserstein and Lahti herself, the decade of the 1960s, whose countercultural assertions and pieties have been subjected to a harsh cross-examination during the Bush-era Republican ascendancy that frames the events of "Third."

If Heidi was a woman who famously sacrificed herself at the altar of women's rights (choosing a meaningful career over middle-class family contentment), Laurie has pursued those same goals to a fault, tempting fate with her rigid deconstructions of the white man's canon and presumptions about red state America. While she has a husband and grown daughter, the certainties that have defined Laurie's life, including the view that Lear's unfaithful daughters Regan and Goneril were right to betray such a sexist patriarch, seem to be unraveling as the invasion of Iraq approaches.

Some playgoers are apt to find Laurie less sympathetic than Heidi and possibly even agree with her daughter Emily (Sarah Drew of "Everwood"), who calls her mother "arrogant, glib and impossible." But Lahti, seated in a restaurant a few blocks from the theater, rushes to her character's defense over dinner. "I think she's incredibly sympathetic," she says. "She's at a precipice: She's feeling powerless, feeling invisible. As a feminist and activist whose ideals were cemented in 1969-70, she realizes at the end of the play she hasn't challenged her perspective in 30 or 40 years."

Lahti, who is in her mid-50s, clings to this dilemma as her own and says, "Laurie is Heidi 20 years later."

Although she never had a chance to discuss the play with Wasserstein, she knew her well enough to presume the main character's introspection is a reflection of the playwright's own misgivings about the arrogance of her generation -- misgivings that Lahti seems to share. "It really takes a hard look at liberals and baby boomers who tend to categorize and judge as much as the other side," she says. "I think politically what she's talking about is the need for the red states and the blue states to become purple. And it takes work on both the Republican and the Democratic side for that to happen."

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