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Review: Two River Theater's 'Third' by Wendy Wasserstein

L-R: Christopher Sears (Woodson Bull III) with Annette O’Toole (Laurie Jameson) and Amy Hohn (Nancy Gordon).
L-R: Christopher Sears (Woodson Bull III) with Annette O’Toole (Laurie Jameson) and Amy Hohn (Nancy Gordon).
Michael Daniel

Third-live play

Rating:
Star4
Star
Star
Star
Star

Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney June 6 (www.michaeltmooney.com)

In 1977 playwright Wendy Wasserstein wrote her first big hit, “Uncommon Women and Others.” It is the story of seven seniors at a seven sisters college in New England. One of the grads, sassy Rita Altabel, assures her friends “When we're 45, we can be pretty amazing.” In “Third,” her final play before her untimely death from cancer in 2005, Wasserstein gave us Laurie Jameson, an English professor at a college in New England, now well past 45 but still striving to be amazing. In between, Wasserstein created such uncommon women as Heidi Holland in “The Heidi Chronicles” (1988) and Sara Goode, one of “The Sisters Rosensweig” (1992). Two River Theater in Red Bank, NJ, is currently presenting a fine production of “Third,” a play that is as much about the author as it is about its characters.

“Third” is ostensibly the story of Laurie Jameson (an exquisite Annette O'Toole), an English professor at a small, elite college who accuses her student, a portentously named Woodson Bull III (handsome young Christopher Sears), of plagiarism. As the play progresses, however, it becomes clear that the script is less concerned about the veracity of her charges than it is about her reaction to everything the boy represents. Bull (or Third, as he prefers to be called) is an outgoing, bright young man who has no qualms about approaching his slightly intimidating teacher to request exemption from attending a screening of “King Lear.” Shakespeare's play looms large over “Third” (both the man and the play) much in the same way Chekhov's “The Three Sisters” hovered over Sara and her siblings in “The Sisters Rosensweig.” It should come as no surprise, then, that Laurie's father Jack (J.R. Horne) is a stout, bearded man slowly slipping into senility. Any resemblance between Lear and Jack is purely intentional.

Wasserstein takes time to painstakingly paint the professor's domestic life, introducing her college-age daughter, Emily (Emily Walton), if for no other reason than to add 'empty-nest syndrome' to Laurie's psychiatric laundry list of problems. While Laurie herself is in the throes of menopause, her husband remains noisily off-stage having his own mid-life crisis working out in his home gym and joining a motorcycle club. The final character in this busy scenario is Laurie's best friend Nancy, a fellow English professor who is battling cancer, something that must have been painfully familiar to the author while writing “Third.”

Add to that Wasserstein's usual predilection for politics and pop culture and you've got a weighty course load of ideas – many of which remain sadly under-developed. For instance, the play is nearly 45 minutes old before anyone posits the idea that the friction between student and teacher might be due to a May / December attraction. The notion is quickly dismissed in favor of less obvious possibilities. In a marvelous solo scene Laurie confesses to her unseen shrink “My thoughts are all over the place.” Wasserstein's, too.

By the second half we've nearly forgotten the premise of plagiarism, but so has the author, whose Act Two veers away from expected confrontations in favor of peaceful reconciliations. The Shakespearean symbolism peaks when Jack is found ranting in a raging thunderstorm, comforted by his saddened daughter. We reluctantly realize that perhaps Third's early assessment of Laurie - “You don't like me because I'm happy” - may indeed be the simple truth.

Although Wasserstein's script proves ultimately unsatisfying, the Two River production is eminently watchable because it is in the capable hands of skilled director Michael Cumpsty and an superb cast. O'Toole strikes a patrician elegance combined with a simmering inner turmoil that reminds us of the best work of Meryl Streep. Sears' earnest demeanor and boyish good looks are well matched by his capable acting skills. Hohn skillfully inserts a note of practicality and humor despite her character's anger and frustration with her illness. One expects that this is what Wasserstein must have been like in her final year.

While Laurie Jameson may always live in the shadow of Heidi Holland and Sara Goode, she has easily managed to exceed the expectations of Rita Altabel. By sharing this last work of a great American playwright, we realize that Wendy Wasserstein herself was pretty amazing – one of the great 'uncommon women' of our time.

“Third” can be seen through June 22nd at Two River Theater, 21 Bridge Street, Red Bank, NJ. For tickets and information contact www.tworivertheater.org or 732.245.1400

Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney June 6 (www.michaeltmooney.com)

Top photo: Christopher Sears (Woodson Bull III) with Annette O’Toole (Laurie Jameson) and Amy Hohn (Nancy Gordon). by Michael Daniel