by Margaret Croyden


Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

"Third"-- A Playwright's Mistake
by Wendy Wasserstein
Mitzi Newhouse Playhouse @ Lincoln Center
Reviewed November 7, 2005 by Margaret Croyden

Wendy Wasserstein, one of the premiere playwrights who broke the ice with her feminist play "The Heidi Chronicles" (1989), has been celebrated as a liberal feminist with a comic talent for projecting social and political issues in her work. She has won numerous awards, sponsored monitoring programs, sits on important boards, and is known as a do-gooder. Absent from the scene for a while, she has now come up with a new play "Third" a confused mish-mash that seems to satirize, and/or attack liberals and political correctness.

Here's the plot: Laurie Jameson (Diana Wiest) is a pompous college professor who at any moment will boast about her Oxford degree, her renowned scholarship, and her so called brilliant theses on "King Lear." She is patently a knee jerk liberal, a walking hack who has the "correct" answer to all things: sex, race, lesbians, gays, and dead white men. As an extreme feminist, she excoriates virtually every cultural aspect in the country and boasts that her lectures are always open to dissenting opinions. But when a student, Third, (his nickname) disagrees with her "King Lear" theses (a truly preposterous one) and has the temerity to express his view in a paper, she suddenly accuses him of plagiarism. Without any evidence, she brings him up on charges and though he is found innocent, he decides to leave the Ivy League college for the Ohio State University! (how heroic) This is the absurd story line that Wasserstein uses to tell us that political correct hacks are hacks, and those like Third who disagree with them, are the real heroes persecuted for their beliefs. Moreover the so-called hero, Third, tells his class mates in a forum that the democrats had better include people like him, if they are to run the country. Is this the message of the play--move to the center, please?

In any case, the stupidity of the plot is clear: no teacher would accuse a student of plagiarism without evidence. But wait, there is a melodramatic sub plot. Our professor is menopausal; she has hot flashes repeatedly; she has two daughters; one a lesbian; the other an unruly, anti-mother type; a remote, detached husband; an ailing father; and a colleague who has cancer and marries her rabbi. Enough already. What is Wasserstein telling us?

Is it the menopause, the house in ruins, the Lear like father, the difficult daughters, and the no-show husband responsible for her rigid political positions? Or are the Republicans correct in attacking political correctness on campus? Is Third the hero, the innocent right winger who is more interested in sports than in politics, but is clever and charming, and not even from the upper classes as the professor assumed, and should he be admired for his dissenting views?

Diane Wiest as the self-righteous prig gives a good performance; she always does. But the dialogue is pretentious, the plot unbelievable, and the character unsympathetic, so what's left? Even Ms. Wiest forever fanning herself is annoying. Is that supposed to be a joke? Jason Ritter as Third gives a conventional performance--neither bad nor marvelous-- just what can be expected, and poor Charles Durning as the demented father has to wait, until almost the end of the play, to deliver a touching scene in which he doesn't recognize his daughter. Although it was dramatic moment, I wondered why this character was necessary. O.K. He prefigures "King Lear," the play the professor was jabbering about, and which became the crux of the controversy between her and the boy. Better still, Wasserstein uses the death of the father (an obvious piece of melodrama) as the impetus for the professor to apologize to the boy. And then--all is forgiven as the curtain falls. Ah, well, maybe it was the menopause, after all.

Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

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