Theater Reviews

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Geffen Playhouse, Westwood
Through Oct. 28

For the past 40-odd years, the liberal arts curriculum in most American universities has been changing, usually with unsavory results, after disappearing down the black hole of political correctness. The bad ideas, rigid attitudes and outright dogma spoon-fed to students in this period, under the screaming banners of academic freedom, postmodern idealism and transgression-for-the-hell-of-it would fill several Alexandrean libraries.

All of which makes Wendy Wasserstein's last play, "Third," both a cause for rejoicing and a sad occasion. "Third" might well be the most thoughtful, provocative and bravest of all the plays Wasserstein would write in her too-short life. The playwright died last year at 55, and "Third" was produced at Lincoln Center just a few months before her death.

Like all of Wasserstein's work, from "Uncommon Women and Others" and "The Sisters Rosensweig" to her Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Heidi Chronicles," "Third" is about the thorny dilemmas women face when they have to choose between the demands of career and a satisfying personal life. But in "Third," Wasserstein, a staunch post-'60s feminist, dares for the first time to not only dramatize both sides of the problem but also to draw real blood from her own band of warriors.

The time is 2002, during the run-up to the Iraq War, and Laurie Jameson (Christine Lahti), an English professor at an elite New England liberal arts college, is teaching her own feminist interpretation of "King Lear." According to Jameson, who recently has written a book titled "Girls Will Be Boys: The Demasculinization of Tropes in Western Literature," Lear's two unlovely, scheming daughters (as traditionally taught), Regan and Goneril, are the true heroines of the play; Cordelia is a "masochistic simp," and Lear is pretty much a sexist fool who deserves everything he gets.

Woodson Bull III (Matt Czuchry), a student in the class who is at the school on a wrestling scholarship, disagrees with Jameson's interpretation, albeit politely. Jameson immediately tucks Third, as he's called, into several of her favorite political and cultural pigeonholes, adding others as events unfold; it turns out that none of the pigeonholes fits the young man.

When Third hands in a brilliant term paper on "Lear," Jameson, whose bias against him extends to his intelligence, accuses him of plagiarism and pursues it to a bitter end. That's one side of the professor, but Wasserstein devotes considerable time to another, humanizing the character and deepening the play. We meet Jameson's best friend, Nancy (Jayne Brook), a professor with breast cancer; we meet her Swarthmore daughter, Emily (Sarah Drew), who has issues with her mother similar to Third's; and we meet Jack (M. Emmet Walsh), Jameson's aging, disintegrating father. Each of these people has an important claim on Jameson that she is struggling with in her own often benighted way.

One of the play's sweetest ironies is that as Jameson's father deteriorates mentally, she finds herself playing dutiful and loving daughter Cordelia to his needy, mad Lear, in effect refuting her own thesis about the play. This is just one of several changes in Jameson's life that force her to reexamine her ideas and prejudices.

The cast, under Maria Mileaf's brisk, assured direction, is strong, led by Lahti's clean, clear-purposed characterization. The others give finely etched performances, though Czuchry's part -- probably the trickiest of all -- causes him to overperform at times.

If Professor Jameson has a bad case of hardening of the categories, Wasserstein, as a playwright, has never written (perhaps under the pressure of her own mortality) with such freedom, insight and stinging wit; there are some gorgeous, funny lines in "Third." I would have liked to have seen her next play.

THIRD
Presented by the Geffen Playhouse
Credits:
Playwright: Wendy Wasserstein
Director: Maria Mileaf
Set designer: Vince Mountain
Lighting designer: David Lander
Costume designer: Alex Jaeger
Composer: Michael Roth
Cast:
Laurie: Christine Lahti
Woodson Bull III: Matt Czuchry
Nancy: Jayne Brook
Emily: Sarah Drew
Jack: M. Emmet Walsh
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