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New York City Theater

"Third"
Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, Lincoln Center

In her substantial body of work, playwright Wendy Wasserstein draws heavily on the middle-class Jewish-American world in which she was raised. But this nice Jewish girl does not hesitate to skewer this world she knows best, treating it in all her plays with a mix of affection and severity.

In “Third,” her latest piece (now on display at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre), she adds another dimension to the scene—that of the academic world. This, too, is a world that this Mt. Holyoke graduate knows from personal experience.

“Third” is about a woman professor who teaches English literature at a small prestigious New England college. She is noted not only for her brilliance, her unorthodox literary opinions, and her intellectual challenge to students, but also for her strong liberal, left-wing views.

But the true limitations of this woman are revealed when she confronts a young man in her Shakespeare course. She makes the assumption that because he is on the wrestling team and appears to be a straight-arrow type, he cannot be brainy. Thus, with no real evidence, she accuses him of plagiarism when he turns in a fine, perceptive critique of “King Lear.” He offers a Freudian take on the father/daughter relationships, while she, proud of her unorthodoxy, pushes a feminist thesis. In fact, she takes a decisive step which results in his loss of a scholarship and his place on the wrestling team.

Wasserstein makes the point that most righteous of people, even those who proclaim tolerance and open-mindedness, can in fact be rigid and narrow. This can apply to both ends of the political/social spectrum. This is a piece which hammers home its points in more organized fashion than is usual with Wasserstein. In fact, it is too polemic, though Wasserstein liberally sprinkles witty lines throughout the piece. Given the emphasis on theme, the characters become more like illustrations than fully-dimensional human beings.

But this particular “Third” is rescued by fine direction (courtesy of Daniel Sullivan) and a superb cast. Sullivan offers clean, sharp direction that never lets the piece lag nor the audience’s attention waver. The cast includes the estimable Dianne Wiest as the professor, and Jason Ritter as her antagonist. While Charles Durning, playing Wiest’s dotty old father, has a minor role, his moments on stage are memorable. In fact, Wasserstein scores a coup, when she has the old man wander out into a storm, not knowing where he is, to be rescued by his daughter. A moment when Wasserstein and Shakespeare join hands!

Overall, this is a diverting evening of entertainment—at times provocative, at times witty--though one wishes Wasserstein had given her people more depth.

-- Irene Backalenick
Nov. 2, 2005


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