Wendy Wasserstein's final play, Third, offers an interesting take on the playwright's long-running chronicle of the modern American woman and her place in society. This time, the playwright ends up poking fun at herself and the "enlightened" mindset she had come to represent. The play's heroine isn't perfect, and neither is the play - and the Philadelphia Theatre Company's new production can't make this often diffuse play any more focused. Yet the production is very thoughtful and engaging - and, in typical Wasserstein fashion, very entertaining.
Third is set at a New England liberal arts college (with emphasis on the "L" word) during the 2002-03 academic year. It centers on Laurie Jameson, a professor who is charming yet strident, personable yet pretentious. She's proud of opposing the restrictions of "white male" society; "Rest assured this classroom is a hegemonic-free zone," she tells her class. But she is challenged by - and oddly obsessed with - Woodson Bull III, a sociology major who is taking her class to fulfill a requirement while he attends the school on a wrestling scholarship. Laurie lumps Third (as Woodson likes to be called) in with the privileged caste she has devoted her career to opposing, and she feels he has no place in her class. Laurie the liberal is also preoccupied with politics - she watches cable news for the latest updates on the Congressional vote to authorize the war in Iraq - and she unfairly conflates Third's opinions with those of President Bush. When Third submits a brilliant paper on King Lear, Laurie is suspicious ("This is the work of an advanced scholar, not a wrestler"). She accuses him of plagiarism and orders him to defend his work before the college's Committee of Academic Standards.
Meanwhile, things aren't going too well for Laurie in her personal life. She's got a rebellious teenage daughter and a cancer-stricken best friend, and both of them are increasing her stress. And then there are the men in her life, like her husband and her therapist, both of whom are offstage, unseen characters; when she complains to them, they don't even respond (ah, symbolism!). The one adult male she can hold a conversation with, her aged father, is so addled by Alzheimer's disease that he has a hard time even remembering who Laurie is. (There are touching echoes of King Lear in this relationship, although a scene in which the father wanders off during a storm, like Lear on the heath, is a bit too obvious.)
Laurie eventually comes to realize that her ideology has blinded her too much when it impacts her relationships with her daughter and her friend. But it's frustrating to see her take so long to get to that realization. (It's also implausible to think that a student could be brought up on plagiarism charges without a shred of evidence.) Third suffers from a lumpy structure - the climax (the student's "trial") is at the end of act one, and act two basically consists of Laurie realizing what a jerk she's been. Director Mary B. Robinson keeps the tempo too sluggish; except for one argument between Laurie and her daughter, there are no fireworks in any of the conflicts. Even the many scene changes are too slow, giving the audience too much time to contemplate what has come before.
The show does get in a bunch of good jokes about the rigid mindset and limited experience of certain liberal types (Laurie's daughter meets Third and exclaims "I've never met a Republican before!"). Yet much of act two seems like Wasserstein congratulating herself for being so open-minded. She likes Laurie Jameson so much that she can't condemn her for her smugness; instead she explains it, apologizes for it, and allows her to redeem herself. That's good, and it offers some hope for the future - even though the final scene, in which Laurie attempts to make peace with Third, doesn't quite ring true.
Lizbeth Mackay walks a delicate tightrope in her portrayal of Laurie: she successfully portrays a character who must be likable and unlikable at the same time. She makes the scene where Laurie breaks down during a lecture quite moving, and shows great sensitivity in Laurie's interactions with her father. Yet Laurie's anger at Third seems more than a little misplaced - in part because, as played by the agreeable Will Fowler, Third never seems the least bit threatening. The imbalance almost makes Laurie seem unbalanced, but Mackay is so empathetic that she never loses the audience's sympathy. There's also strong work from Jennifer Blood as the sharp-tongued daughter, and by Melanye Finister as the friend whose struggle with cancer (which parallels the battle Wasserstein would lose shortly after writing this play) teaches her how to embrace life. As the ailing father, Ben Hammer makes the most of a role that veers too sharply between comedy and tragedy.
Third (the student) turns out to be quite different than Laurie has prejudged him to be. So, too, does Third (the play) turn out to be more than a simple left-versus-right debate. Third isn't completely satisfying; Wasserstein's last word on these subjects was probably not her best, and Robinson's direction could use a little more vitality. But Third remains absorbing and definitely worth seeing. Wasserstein's middle-aged heroine is able to step outside her comfort zone and see another point of view without reflexively condemning it - and that's an important lesson at any age.
Third runs through April 20, 2008 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $46 to $58, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org, or by visiting the box office.