Recipient of the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the first woman to win a Tony Award (both for The Heidi Chronicles), Wendy Wasserstein devoted her career to writing plays with a distinct feminist bent, celebrating strong, intelligent women operating in a male-dominated society. Think: Uncommon Women and Others and The Sisters Rosensweig, among others.
However, in her play Third, written in 2005 and the last production of Two River Theater Company's twentieth season, she turns a skeptical eye on feminism to show that an extreme sense of female entitlement can sometimes cloud one's judgment and lead to the adoption of the same fundamental assumptions that feminism initially urged everyone to shed. It is a powerful message, one that Wasserstein and Michael Cumptsy's robust direction tackle head-on, and having experienced Wasserstein's final play (she died in early 2006, soon after it closed at Lincoln Center), we are the better for it.
Spanning the 2002-2003 academic year at a small, prestigious New England college, Third focuses on hotshot professor of feminist literature, Laurie Jameson, and her relationships with a male student, a female colleague, her younger daughter and her ailing father. In the midst of menopausal hot flashes, worries about her friend's recurrent cancer and dealing with a senile father who tends to wander off, Laurie Jameson encounters a student whom she automatically labels a male chauvinist, a Republican and, ultimately, a plagiarist—all based on very slim evidence. For starters, he has a number after his name (he's Woodson Bull III), his grandfather and father attended this college, he's a graduate of the Groton School, and he's on the wrestling team. When he turns in a paper about King Lear, Laurie's literary obsession, that she thinks is too profound for him to have written by himself, she accuses him of plagiarism and brings him up on charges before a faculty committee (above). What ensues is a journey of enlightenment for both professor and student.
Wendy Wasserstein has written funny, introspective, ironic dialogue delivered by compelling characters in this, probably her most personal, play. Interestingly, her two main characters aren't really very likeable people. Both are smug, supercilious (especially Laurie), each sure she/he is right, thus creating a delicious conflict that keeps us involved and begs to be resolved some way. And that Laurie Jameson is a political news junkie who rails against George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their taking us into the Iraq War adds another layer of intensity to her relationship with Third, making him an unwitting stand-in for the administration she so loathes.
Annette O'Toole's Laurie (left) is a woman impressed with herself, not above dropping the names of institutions where she studied as a way to make sure Third knows she's an intellectual force to be reckoned with. Not only does she prejudge him, but she denigrates her daughter's new boyfriend, saying he lacks ambition because he's just a bank teller; of course, she's never even laid eyes on the man. Without thought, Laurie has invaded her friend Nancy's medical privacy, and she doesn't have anything nice to say about her own husband Steve. In contrast, her treatment of her senile father Jack is a model of concern and love. It's no wonder that, inadvertently, he resolves the conflict at the center of the plot.
Young actor Christopher Sears as Third gives O'Toole a run for her acting money! He is the quintessential prep school athlete, good-looking and seeming always to be looking for a way to skirt academic rules. He manages to spout critical gobbledygook about King Lear rather convincingly, leaving just a whiff of suspicion that he doesn't know what he's talking about. He has a very funny scene in a bar with Emily Imbrie (photo to right), the professor's rebellious younger daughter, played with just the right touch of attractive earnest rambunctiousness by Emily Walton. And in his final confrontation with Laurie Jameson, he matches her dignity as the two reach a reconciliation of sorts.
Finally, Amy Hohn's warmth as Professor Nancy Gordon (left with O’Toole) provides an important contrast to O'Toole's brittleness and intransigence. She, at least, offers Third a bit of sympathy as he goes up against a famous, powerful and popular professor in the fight of his academic life.
And as Laurie's father Jack, J. R. Horne (right) is a lovable, albeit infuriating, old man whose mind moves fluidly between past and present as he unknowingly utters truths, proving that getting old is not a walk in the park. As a member of the "sandwich generation," Laurie has to care for him, her family and, in this case, her academic responsibilities. Combine all that with hot flashes and a student who appears to defy everything she has believed for the past three decades, and you have a recipe for psychological disaster.
The ingenious set designed by Michael Carnahan (left) does multiple duty as a piece of stage revolves to bring in various pieces of furniture that suggest a lecture hall, a living room, a shrink's office, and the outside of a bookstore, among other locations. Three stained glass windows high above the stage convey the majesty of a cathedral of learning, as do the stone Tudor arches over the entrances. That the sides of the set are canted inward (as through a fish-eye camera lens) and a bit distorted echo the distortions in Wasserstein's play. Rui Rita's lighting and Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes' original music and sound are atmospheric without being intrusive. The costumes by Karen Perry, however, puzzled me. Those for Laurie and Nancy were singularly unattractive, with Laurie's being somewhat mannish and lacking in style while Nancy's are baggy and rather dowdy. Perhaps college professors dress frumpily, but these duds were unappealing. Not that I would have imagined either woman to be a fashion plate, but these neither reflected the era in which the play is set nor did they do either woman's body justice.
Above all, Third is an play about what can go wrong when a feminist engages in socio-economic profiling without even getting to know her target. As the play draws to an end, Third (or Woody, as she continues to call him) tells her to "go with the hope." Wendy Wasserstein has written an optimistic play fitting for the end of her life as a feminist and as an artist. We cannot get stuck adhering to ideas we espoused and believed in our twenties; we need to grow and evolve, just as she did over the course of her dramatic career. The loss of Wendy Wasserstein has left a gigantic hole in the dramatic world—and in the lives of her audiences, as well.
Third will be performed at the Joan and Robert Rechnitz Theater, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank through June 22. For performance times, dates and tickets, call the box office at 732.345.1400 or visit www.tworivertheater.org online.
Photos © Michal Daniel.