The late playwright Wendy Wasserstein had a celebrated flair for sparkling witticisms and insightfully addressing the lives of accomplished, ambivalent female baby boomers like herself. A theme she returned to often, including in her final play, “Third,” was the discontent of women of her generation who allegedly “had it all” — and yet still felt unfulfilled.
In the partially realized “Third,” which debuted in New York in 2005 and is receiving a polished local premiere at ArtsWest, the leftist-feminist literature professor Laurie (Marty Mukhalian) is at the top of her profession, yet roiling with anger and resentment.
She takes out some of it on Woodson Bull III (Mark Tyler Miller) her student at an insulated liberal-arts college. Laurie presumes that the strapping Third, as he prefers to be called, is a politically conservative, overprivileged son of wealth and too vacuous to have written the excellent paper on “King Lear” he submitted.
But if Laurie is wrong about him and her charges of plagiarism, she’s very, very wrong. And in the deepening second half of “Third,” the prof comes face to face with her own prejudices, the good things in her life she takes for granted (including her daughter Emily, played by Kacey Shiflet), and the specter of mortality closing in.
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In Peggy Gannon’s staging at ArtsWest, on Burton Yuen’s attractive set of arched window frames backed by a vision of open sky, “Third” feels like the work of a writer in mid-transition. The cocktail-hour bon mots, sentimental ruefulness and sharp awareness of class and milieu that helped make Wasserstein’s “The Heidi Chronicles” and “The Sisters Rosensweig” so successful are present.
But there is more darkness, tougher questioning, more symbolism in this work, which hit Off Broadway just weeks before Wasserstein’s death. It is hard not to project her final illness onto the cancer-riddled, philosophical character of Nancy (Kate Witt), Laurie’s colleague and friend.
And as Laurie cares for her father Jack (Bill Higham) in his dementia-hazed decline, there are emanations of King Lear’s tragedy and his daughter Cordelia’s devotion.
But the play and production suffer from the heavy caricaturing of Laurie in the early scenes. Her hectoring lectures, cruel potshots at a student she openly (and unfairly) despises, and her utter arrogance and narcissism make her not merely unprofessional, but nearly unbearable.
If Laurie’s withering sarcasm is meant to be funny, it isn’t. And a stridently fast-talking Mukhalian does little to humanize the woman’s venomous smugness, or lend some sincerity to her political stances — like her intense opposition to America’s looming Iraq war.
“Third” contrasts Laurie’s rigid elitism with the unpretentiousness and geniality of Miller’s Third. He’s the play’s most virtuous and freshest character, a Midwestern jock with brains and sensitivity, open-minded enough to put himself in a pretentiously progressive milieu where his values are mocked.
Miller embodies Third’s poise and hurt throughout. But he has the better role, and it’s a relief when the capable Mukhalian eventually gets to shift gears, to become human instead of a fem-lib gorgon. Her scenes with Higham’s poignantly realistic Jack, and the excellent Witt’s Nancy are stirring, and much more revealing than Laurie’s abrasive rants.
While academia certainly can breed smug intellectual bullies, why would Wasserstein make Laurie so extremely stereotypical, and take her down so hard? One wonders what “Third” might have been, had its author had more time and energy to complete it.
Yet, imperfections and all, “Third” deals with real concerns and sparks meaningful conversation. And it raises again a unique theatrical voice, silenced too soon.
Misha Berson: email@example.com