Also see Sharon's review of A Little Night Music
But, unlike Proof, Third isn't really about the authorship of the work or the student himself. (Indeed, by the second act, the paper is a non-issue.) Instead, Third is a character study of the professor. Christine Lahti plays Laurie Jameson, a successful professor at a New England liberal arts college. Laurie begins her class (on "Uncorseting Elizabethan Drama") by explaining that her classroom is a "hegemonic-free zone" where her students will be encouraged to challenge assumptions and think for themselves. She introduces King Lear by suggesting that Goneril and Regan were right about Lear - an old, doddering, useless white man - while Cordelia, the "traditional heroine" of the play, was a simp, who fell victim to established rules of daughterly behavior.
But for all of Laurie's talk about eliminating stereotypes, her own biases are immediately revealed. When student Woodson Bull III approaches her after class, she instantly assumes the young man is having trouble understanding King Lear or grasping her point. The more "Third" explains about himself, the more Laurie jumps to conclusions: he's a white male with a name that speaks of privilege; he's an athlete who gets by on easygoing charm rather than brains; and he thinks everyone will make exceptions for him because he's part of the power elite. And, since the play is set in 2002 when George W. Bush is authorizing the use of force in Iraq, Laurie is pretty darned fed up with nonintellectual privileged white guys who seem to control the world.
The real genius in Wasserstein's writing - and the delicate line Lahti expertly walks - is that Laurie is simultaneously likable and hatable. We admire her goals of challenging young minds; we applaud her accomplishment of having been a driving force in freeing the college from old school establishment biases; we sympathize with her frustration at a government she feels is way off-track; we even give her points for not allowing unfortunately timed menopausal hot flashes to derail her from the task at hand. But at the same time, we detest how she mocks Third for his name and career goals; we dislike her name-dropping attempts to appear superior; and we disapprove of her insanely controlling attitude toward friends and family. What Third is really about, when you peel away the superficial issue of the King Lear paper, is an intelligent, successful, liberal woman of a certain age, coming to terms with herself and her life.
Third is Wasserstein's final play, and while it has moments of brilliance, it probably could have used a bit more tinkering. Expositional lines are clunky. Third's character - while perhaps not the stereotype Laurie expected - still manages to convey only a single note. (Matt Czuchry puts an affable reading into nearly every line, except for one moment when he allows us to peer beneath. It's a part of the character that could do with deeper exploration.) Laurie's daughter, Emily, is also little more than a type: a standard rebellious teenager looking to get out from under her controlling mother's thumb. And a King Lear-esque plot turn, in which Laurie finds herself playing Cordelia to her own mentally deteriorating father (a poignantly confused M. Emmet Walsh), verges on unnecessary sappiness. Only a subplot involving Nancy, a fellow professor who is close friends with Laurie but also clashes with her, is fully developed as a welcome addition to Laurie's journey.
This isn't to say that Third should be skipped. It's a solid play about a sort of character we don't often see addressed on stage, and it presents an unusual take on her. It's funny, thoughtful and entertaining. But subsidiary characters and subplots aren't developed or brought together as well as they could have been, and the resulting tapestry - while attractive - seems to have been woven with only one thread.
Third runs at the Geffen Playhouse through October 21, 2007. For information, see www.geffenplayhouse.com.
Geffen Playhouse - Gilbert Cates, Producing Director; Randall Arney, Artistic Director; Stephen Eich, Managing Director - presents Third by Wendy Wasserstein. Scenic Designer Vince Mountain; Costume Designer Alex Jaeger; Lighting Designer David Lander; Composer Michael Roth; Casting Phyllis Schuringa; Dramaturg Amy Levinson Millán; Production Stage Manager Dana Victoria Anderson; Assistant Stage Manager Christopher Paul. Directed by Maria Mileaf.