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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Wendy Wasserstein's Third Challenges Smug Prejudice
Two River Theater Company

Also see Bob's reviews of The Tempest and Grease


Annette O'Toole and Christopher Sears
Two River Theater's lively and nuanced production of Wendy Wasserstein's last play Third is a bracing and welcome reminder of just how courageous, honest, brilliant and humane a writer Wasserstein was. Brief and lightly comedic in tone as it is, Third makes abundantly clear Wasserstein's unwillingness to either defame or dismiss those whose background and politics were not in line with hers. Additionally, with Third, Wasserstein warns of the terrible consequences that result from the prejudiced refusal of contemporary liberal educational and intellectual elitists (who had once gloriously broken through the prejudice of earlier elites against marginalized "outsiders", e.g. women, minorities) to respect Americans who are not in lockstep with the established views of their 'intellectual" class. Furthermore, pay close attention and you will note that the warm, endearingly feisty Wasserstein was too smart to be willing to be in lockstep with any rigidly imposed dogma.

The setting for Third is a small, elite Eastern liberal arts college throughout the 2002-2003 academic year. We first meet Laurie Jameson, a English literature professor in her mid fifties, as she presents her class with an interesting, albeit radical, feminist Freudian analysis of King Lear, "the ultimate privileged white male." Although she detests Cordelia, who to her is Lear's simpering wimp of a daughter, there are interesting parallels to them in Laurie's relationship with her elderly senile father. Although Laurie maintains a strong and confident aspect, the lady clearly has problems.

Jameson takes an immediate dislike to one of her students, Woodson Bull III, whose nickname is Third. Personable and ingratiating, Third is a bit aggressive as he confidently engages Laurie in discussion. However, his name and his manner, and the fact that he is a Groton grad, cause her to assume that he is an inherently unworthy son of privilege. Sealing her prejudice is the fact that Third has breached the walls of her sanctuary on a wrestling scholarship. Thus, when Third submits a paper with a brilliant, insightful analysis of King Lear, Laurie is certain that the paper was not written by him. She formally charges him with plagiarism, instigating an academic committee investigation and trial.

***SPOILER ALERT*** I will not reveal where all of this leads. However, there is a line in the last scene of Third which I need to quote in order to convey to the reader the sweet wit and wisdom of Wasserstein. The quote is "All it takes is your father dying to know that Goneril and Regan are not heroines." ***END OF SPOILER ALERT

Annette O'Toole precisely conveys the aura and aspect of an academic aristocrat who is so delightedly confident in her long denied and hard won status that she cannot see that she has become as hidebound and judgmental as those who tried to block her way decades earlier. O'Toole (and Wasserstein's words) convey a woman who has lost her way.

Christopher Sears fully conveys the charm, confidence and seeming intelligence of Third. Under the sure-handed direction of Michael Cumpsty, Sears' too good to be true Third allows for the possibility that Laurie may be on to something. Amy Hohn is affecting as Nancy Gordon, Laurie's beleaguered colleague and friend who, although dealing with a recurrence of cancer, risks her friendship with Laurie in order to be true to her principles.

Emily Walton as Laurie's daughter Emily, who is a student at Swarthmore, easily conveys the difficulty faced by a young woman with an overbearing mother trying to find her own way. J.R. Horne portrays the unpredictable behavior of Jack, Laurie's senility plagued father, without histrionics.

Third is an expansion of a one act Wasserstein play that premiere at Washington, D.C.'s Theatre J in January, 2004. It intriguingly suggests autobiographical elements. It may well have been completed in haste under difficult circumstances as it is not as rich and deeply developed as some of Wasserstein's earlier plays. However, it is smart and funny, and always involving. It is also an important warning about the deterioration of political dialogue in America, which has only grown since Third opened at Lincoln Center in 2005.

Just three months after Third opened at Lincoln Center, Wendy Wasserstein succumbed to complications of lymphoma in January 2006 at the age of 55. With freedom of expression and acceptance of political diversity at universities in grave danger, Third is a potent reminder of the dangers to freedom which we face. I hear a voice inside my head saying, "Where, on where is Wendy Wasserstein when we so need her?" And the best, albeit bittersweet, answer that I can come up is that at this moment Wasserstein is on-stage at the Two River Theater dispensing wisdom to which attention must be paid.

Third continues performances (Evenings: Thursday 7 pm/ Friday and Saturday 8 pm; Matinees: Wednesday 1 pm/ Saturday and Sunday 3 pm) through June 22, 2014, at Two River Theater, Joan and Robert Rechnitz Theatre, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank 07701; Box Office: 732-345-1400 / online: www.trtc.org.

Third by Wendy Wasserstein; directed by Michael Cumpsty

Cast
Laurie Jameson………………….......Annette O'Toole
Woodson Bull III………………......Christopher Sears
Emily Imbrie…………………………...Emily Walton
Jack Jameson……………………………...J.R. Horne
Nancy Gordon…………………………….Amy Hohn


Photo: Michal Daniel


- Bob Rendell



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