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Review: THIRD at TheaterWorks

By: Oct. 12, 2015
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TheaterWorks in Hartford is opening its 30th season with Wendy Wasserstein's last play, THIRD. The production is solid and there are some fine moments in the performances, but the plot is more contrived than credible, which undermines the whole enterprise.

Wasserstein's work was ground-breaking in the 70s and 80s. She chronicled the independence and ambivalence of educated contemporary women, establishing their right to claim center stage as protagonists in their own lives, without necessarily valorizing them. Often her characters were hard to like, for their inconsistencies, their compromises, or their pettiness.

The title character of THIRD is male: Woodson Bull III, called 'Third' for short. He's a blonde, blue-eyed athlete, with the kind of name that suggests he's a scion of a powerful upper class family--but looks can be deceiving. Unfortunately, the central character in the play, Professor Laurie Jameson, doesn't seem to know that, despite her Harvard/Oxford training in critical thinking.

Jameson is a Wasserstein type: a feminist professor, smart and authoritative, who is coming unhinged as she hits menopause, her only daughter leaves for college, her father disappears into dementia, and her husband absents himself in the home gym. It's 2002-03, and she's obsessed with news of US involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq-perhaps because it serves to distract her from her own issues, and because the escalating war mimics her internal state. She freely messes in other people's lives (a colleague's, her daughter's, and most disastrously, Third's) but doesn't seem able really to face her own, despite seeing a shrink--a Freudian who is as resolutely silent as her husband.

In the opening monologue, Prof. Jameson, ably played by Kate Levy, lectures us as her class on a reading of KING LEAR that labels Cordelia as a 'masochistic simp' and victim rather than a heroine. We see her interest in being intellectually provocative, and we witness her first meeting with Woodson Bull III, played by newcomer Conor M. Hamill, a recent grad of the BFA Acting Training Program at The Hartt School in Hartford. A student in her class, he attempts to resolve a conflict between a film screening she's required and his wrestling commitments, which connect to the scholarship that brought him to campus. She's inflexible and dismissive, based on his looks, his status as an athlete, and his name. The triggering event for the plot erupts out of these assumptions several scenes later when she accuses him of plagiarism, even though she cites no evidence of sources he's cadged from: she just thinks a guy like him couldn't write a paper like that, and she brings him before the Committee on Academic Standards in December based on that notion alone.

This is so unlike how universities really function that it would work only if Jameson is really losing it or if the play took itself less seriously and spun off into a sort of fantastical riff. But Wasserstein (who wrote this play as she herself was facing terminal cancer, and trying to provide for her then 7 year old daughter's future) chose not to dive that deeply into psychological disintegration, and remained firmly wedded to naturalism. We're left with a final scene that is wholly unbelievable: a newly perky and repentant Jameson seeks out Third in his dorm room and tries to absolve herself of the havoc she's caused in his life by conferring an honorary degree on him.

In between these events, we meet an array of sharply drawn characters who are far more authentic in their interactions than the central ones. Olivia Hoffman plays Jameson's daughter Emily with sass and heart, though that isn't enough to make the opening scene of Act Two work, when she encounters Third in a campus bar. Andrea Gallo plays Nancy Gordon, a fellow professor undergoing cancer treatment. She's admirably grounded, crusty, and eventually buoyant. But the best scene in the play depends on sweet work by veteran actor Edmond Genest, playing Jack Jameson, Laurie Jameson's father, who is deep into dementia but still knows how to make moments count. The transcendence of that scene offers a glimpse into Wasserstein's gifts as a playwright, snuffed out too soon, and before this play could get the dramaturgical attention it needs.

The play is structured as 14 brief scenes, generally for two characters each, in multiple locations over two acts. Michael Schweikhardt's set manages this gracefully by deploying a turntable, the first I've seen in years of watching shows in TheaterWorks' small space. This production, which falls 10 years after the play's premiere at Lincoln Center, runs through November 8.

photo credit: Lanny Nagler


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