Watching Third, Wendy Wasserstein's final play, in its earnest, well-shaded production at Main Street Theater, you get the feeling pretty early on that nothing special is going to happen. You wait for the scenes to take flight, but the play's a retread — of feminism, gender politics and anti-Iraq war activism — from the first scene on.
Considering her previous award-winning Heidi Chronicles and Sisters Rosensweig, this one's awfully disappointing. The joy has gone out of Wasserstein's work. Her idiosyncrasy, handled so adroitly in Heidi, only manages to bubble up slightly during this play, when events become most dour; otherwise, Third is harsh and uninteresting. Even giving her minor props for au courant Bush-bashing rhetoric and a fiery Keith Olbermann heart, Third, with its nakedly exposed polemics, feels outdated even though it premiered in 2005. Nothing dates faster than yesterday's political commentary. This play is Wasserstein going through the motions.
She doesn't help herself with a main character who's a humorless prig and never once earns our sympathy or respect. Laurie Jameson (Rebecca Greene Udden) is a renowned, revered and feared English professor at a prestigious New England college. A liberal's liberal, she spouts New Age platitudes while raging against the government for a wide variety of social ills. The irony is that Laurie's very core is set in stone. She preaches universal tolerance and demands that her students "look with fresh eyes" and not be afraid to contradict her. But she is, at heart, a snob of the first order, obdurate and unyielding.
Main Street Theater, 4617 Montrose, 713-524-6706.
Through September 21. $26-$32.
When a jock student, Woodson Bull III, or "Third" (Josh Taylor), who has sparred with her from the first day of school, upsets her well-manicured little universe by writing a surprisingly articulate paper on gender politics in King Lear, she instinctively reacts with a charge of plagiarism against him. Her intolerance is mechanical, a Code Pinker on auto pilot. She is adamant and won't be assuaged. But we never doubt him, which only increases our distance from her. We don't like her, and throughout the play she does nothing to change our view. No blame for this is to be laid upon Udden, who instills much-needed humanity in her character, but this pro can go only so far until even she hits a wall.
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Laurie might be tolerable if she were painted with some brighter complementary color, but Wasserstein keeps her drab and monotone. She never surprises, being plagued with a robotic inflexibility that never rings true. In an attempt to soften her, Wasserstein throws in a dotty father (David Parker), a rebellious daughter (Mollie Meagher), an unseen husband going through a midlife crisis and a best friend/colleague diagnosed with cancer (Rachel H. Dickson). These secondary characters and secondary problems just get in the way of the main issue instead of illuminating it. Not allowed a life of her own, Laurie is one-dimensional, a signboard advertising the playwright's intentions. This is what happens when you write a treatise and not a play.
Under Cheryl Kaplan's pellucid direction, though, Third sustains our interest more than it has a right to, and the rest of the cast, like Udden, is exemplary. With his hedgehog hairdo and sheepdog attitude, Taylor makes us believe he could be a college wrestler with a brain. His indignity at being called a liar and a cheat resonates fully, and we wish Wasserstein had brought this character closer to the center of the play. As daughter Emily, Meagher exudes a toughness that bespeaks her origins, whether locking horns with Mom or casually flirting with Third at a neighborhood bar. With his cantilevered eyebrows, Parker gives ailing Dad a woefully misplaced sense of self, and Dickson adds layers of dignity and probity to her stricken professor, Nancy.
Words and paper make up the clever, impressionistic set design by Jodi Bobrovsky, with passages from King Lear etched into the floor and shoji screens flanking the upstage wall. And Troy Scheid's spot-on costumes do more to illuminate character than do passages from Wasserstein. Laurie's calf-length crushed velvet peasant skirt and Birkenstock-inspired sandals give her character telling detail.
Soon after Third premiered, Wasserstein was diagnosed with lymphoma, and she died suddenly in early 2006. Her heart is evident in the character of Nancy as she battles her cancer with stoic humor and grim realism, which are trademarks of Wasserstein's best work. Would that Wasserstein had put as much of her heart into Laurie. She might have written a really strong, memorable play.