‘Third’ doesn’t make the grade

Wendy Wasserstein’s Third is a play about academia, so let’s couch things academically: This is a B+ production of a B- play. I report this with a heavy heart. The same playwright’s The Heidi Chronicles (which Third occasionally resembles) won the Pulitzer for its propulsive mix of academe, dreams, and disillusion, and I was hoping — as, I suppose, all critics were hoping — that lightning might strike twice. Indeed, the set-up looks promising, with just the right mix of quirky personalities and Lofty National Themes. Laurie Jameson, a Harvard-educated professor of literature at a vaguely Amherst-y college, takes an instant dislike to her student Woodson Bull III, descended from an old New England family. Convinced that Woodson is a closed-minded conservative on account of his hoity-toity background, Jameson is astounded when Third — as he likes to be called — crafts a practically publishable essay on King Lear. Jameson is confident of academic dishonesty and confronts Third, with life-altering results.

Let’s be blunt: Third’s first act is profoundly preposterous. Academic improbabilities balloon into impossibilities, until we might as well be watching science fiction. (In fact, a kick line of Martians would only make things more believable.) In two crucial opening scenes, the leftwing Jameson sizes up Third as a troglodytec neo-conservative on the basis of … well, exactly nothing. In fact, the first thing we learn about Third is that he’s a frickin’ sociology major, which is the closest thing the academy has to a degree in Karl Marx. We further discover that he takes gay and lesbian studies as an elective; that he successfully juggles his academic responsibilities with his passion for wrestling; and that he actually goes to bookstores to scavenge for a wide range of reading material, including post-colonial literature and Harry Potter. In short, he’s the type of engaged, conscientious student any literature professor would love to have in a course — including me. What’s not to like?

Thus Jameson’s subsequent witch hunt — with attendant charges of plagiarism — seems both implausible and contrived: There’s no earthly reason why she should resent Third’s sophisticated paper on King Lear, and not a scintilla of evidence that the work isn’t his own. Against all logic, Jameson’s accusation goes to trial — no academic integrity committee would ever let such a flimsy charge escalate to this level — and Wasserstein wants us to believe that the showdown is something of a nail-baiter (which it isn’t), instead of patently absurd (which it is). It’s the cheapest sort of dramatic device — a trial in all sorts of senses — and exists only to create an unnatural tension instead of an organic one. Realizing, perhaps, that the plot makes no sense, Wasserstein sets the play during the saber-rattling years of 2002-3, thus forcing parallels between President George W. and Third, both scions of New England gentry. But liberals object to W. not because he’s a product of privilege, but because he’s a trigger-happy fuckwit. By everybody’s admission, Third is neither, so what’s Jameson’s beef? Moreover, Third seems like a sweetie. Screw probation; give that boy a hug!

Weirdly, if happily, Act II is both stronger and meatier, theatrically. Once we’ve put the hooey of Act I behind us, we can concentrate on what Wasserstein writes best: lyrically composed duets of disenchantment and disintegration, as various individuals within Jameson’s orbit navigate the aftermath of her will-to-annihilate. This includes Jameson’s independent, Swarthmore-attending daughter Emily (played with spunk by Chelsea D. Fry); her colleague and courageous cancer-fighter Nancy Gordon (affectingly rendered by Magda Porter); and her ailing, failing papa (Don Frame, appropriately Lear-like in a difficult, overtly Shakespearean role).

As Jameson, Rita Crosby isn’t quite slick enough as a jargon-spewing lecturer — after all, she’s had 25 years to polish her wacky ruminations on cross-dressing — but she nails the melodrama of the play’s dénouement. Similarly, Dylan Peden, as Third, seems rather stiff for a jocular jock, though a witty, second-act bar scene allows him to display his comic chops.

Third began life as a one-act play, and a few scenes of this two-act version feel like padding; director Catherine Babbitt moves things along as best she may, but the evening is still overlong. But what’s most dispiriting about Wasserstein’s final piece is how transparently Third cannibalizes superior plays: It’s one-third Edson’s Wit; one third Mamet’s Oleanna; and another third Shanley’s Doubt. Compared to these illustrious forebears, Third thus seems only a solid second draft — in desperate need of a third. •


8pm Fri & Sat, 2:30pm Sun
Through Sep 21
The Cellar Theater
800 W. Ashby
(210) 733-7258

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