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'Third' is, sadly, only second-rate Wasserstein

September 21, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

An inevitable sadness looms over the Geffen Playhouse's production of "Third," Wendy Wasserstein's final play before she died of cancer last year at 55. The playwright, who possessed an unfailing instinct for making audiences laugh, would probably be a little sad herself were she around. The play, which premiered at Lincoln Center in 2005, still needs more work and Wasserstein, who was a tireless rewriter, was always prepared to roll up her sleeves to tinker with a joke, finesse a plot point or improve a monologue. No doubt she'd make a quip, giggle, then set out to make things better.

Gracious as she was, she'd also be honored that her play was receiving its West Coast premiere at the Geffen, in a production drawing back to the stage her old friend and acting collaborator, the estimable Christine Lahti. And no fool about her own worth, she'd remind herself that she'd written a substantive comedy critiquing liberal mind-sets, not unlike her own, that had grown too assured of their unerring judgment. She wanted to understand why Democrats lost control of the government and opened the door to the era of George W. Bush. So she imagined a fiercely committed intellectual in her mid-50s, a menopausal sister of Heidi from "The Heidi Chronicles," and asked tough questions about the blind spots and rigidity of her thinking.

Lahti portrays Laurie Jameson, an English professor at an elite New England college who has been a feminist trailblazer. A woman who came of age in the late '60s, Laurie has held fast to her progressive political ideals, balancing a stellar academic career with a family that includes two bright, independent-minded daughters. A four-star general in the battle against racist, sexist and heterosexist assumptions, she rarely if ever feels inclined to second-guess her enlightened point of view, even though she's increasingly feeling its irrelevance. Much of her time at home is spent hollering at the TV news in helpless indignation at the start-up of the Iraq war.

Laurie's latest book, "Girls Will Be Boys," is recommended to Woodson Bull III (Matt Czuchry), an undergraduate in her Un-Corseting Elizabethan Drama class, who she suspects is a spoiled boarding-school brat from wealthy Republican stock -- in short, the enemy. When Woodson, who prefers to be called Third (to distinguish himself from his grandfather and father, both of whom are alumni of the college), turns in a paper on "King Lear," she accuses him of plagiarism, never believing that a straight white male -- a wrestler from Groton who dreams of becoming a sports agent -- could be capable of such a psychologically astute interpretation.

This represents the central conflict of "Third," and its setup is riddled with holes. The biggest of all stems from the fact that Wasserstein offers only a cartoon version of a feminist literary scholar. If Laurie were a professor in the real world, she would never have attained the national reputation she has by peddling such crackpot notions about Shakespeare (Regan and Goneril as the heroines of "King Lear") and lambasting students for their party affiliations.

More annoying is Laurie's habit of incessantly reeling off academic brand names (Harvard, Swarthmore, Oxford) to establish her rarefied milieu. The playwright clearly wants to point out an ironic contrast between what Laurie espouses (a class-free utopia) and what she personally values (Ivy League bastions and their snobby ilk). But this sort of fetishizing elitism runs throughout Wasserstein's work and is of a piece with her tendency to opt for humorous caricatures over subtler shadings.

Wasserstein had the searching heart of Chekhov, but her theatrical instincts were closer to Neil Simon's: A punch-line mentality often undermined the wistful comedies always struggling to emerge from an imagination that just may have been too funny for its own good. But in "Third," the delicate, autumnal depiction of life, fleeting though it can be, serves to relieve some of the sitcom strain.

Laurie's moments with her youngest daughter, Emily (Sarah Drew), a Swarthmore undergraduate who rejects her mother's cramped vision of success, have more life in them than her contrived standoff with Third. And Laurie's heart-tugging exchanges with Nancy (Jayne Brook), her cancer-battling friend and colleague, cut deeper into the situation of a woman forced to acknowledge that not everything can be placed under her well-intentioned control.

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