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In her engaging new play, Wendy Wasserstein examines power and privilege in an academic setting.

Charles Durning, Dianne Wiest, and Gaby Hoffman in Third
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
"I hate the times we're living in," says Laurie Jameson, an English professor at a small, unnamed New England college. Frustrated by the neoconservative turn that the U.S. has taken, not to mention her inability to effect change in her own life or the lives of those she loves most, Laurie instead flexes her muscles in the one arena where she still can do so: academia. In Wendy Wasserstein's engaging new play Third, the author examines power and privilege, and makes the point that even liberals can be narrow-minded.

Laurie, played by Academy Award-winner Dianne Wiest, is dedicated to challenging what she identifies as "the norms of dominant culture." She teaches her classes from an explicitly feminist viewpoint that attempts to look at established texts in a new way. One of her students is Woodson Bull III (Jason Ritter), who likes to be called simply "Third." Laurie views this straight white male jock as "a walking red state" and a prime example of everything that's wrong with America. When Third turns in a paper on King Lear that Laurie feels he could not possibly have written, she accuses him of plagiarism.

Even as she bemoans Third's presumably privileged background, Laurie demonstrates her own class consciousness by showing pride in her Harvard education and her daughter's attendance of Swarthmore College. She also crosses the line of academic propriety by asking her student flat out, "Are you a Republican, Mr. Bull?" And when Third informs her that she's bringing the plagiarism case against him "based on socio-economic profiling," she responds angrily that he should not dare accuse her of reverse discrimination.

Wasserstein uses this primary dramatic conflict to explore larger issues of power and its abuses. Set during the 2002-2003 academic year, Third plays out against the backdrop of the burgeoning Iraq War; news reports are heard at various points in the show, and pointed critiques of the Bush administration are made. Laurie, a news junkie, obsesses over the war almost to the point of dysfunction.

Dianne Wiest and Jason Ritter in Third
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
In some ways, Wasserstein seems to be stacking the deck against Laurie. As in the tragedies she teaches, the professor's hubris is bound to result in her downfall. Her reactions to Third border on caricature, and the playwright exploits Laurie's menopausal hot flashes for comic relief. But Wasserstein also suggests that Laurie's actions vis-a-vis Third are her way of avoiding -- or at least displacing -- her anxiety over the things in her life that she can't control. This includes the deteriorating health of her father, Jack (Charles Durning); the cancer afflicting her best friend and colleague, Nancy Gordon (Amy Aquino); and the growing independence of her daughter Emily (Gaby Hoffman).

The cast, adeptly directed by Daniel Sullivan, is excellent. Wiest convincingly depicts her character's strengths and convictions as well as her more neurotic tendencies. Though Wasserstein sets Laurie up for a fall, Wiest's moving portrayal makes us care about what happens to her. Ritter conveys the confident, easygoing nature that Third exudes at the beginning of the play and the bitterness and resentment he comes to feel as a result of the plagiarism accusation and its aftermath.

Hoffman is enormously appealing as Emily, who loves and admires her mother but finds that her role model is flawed and may not really know what is in her daughter's best interests. Durning conveys debilitating senility and forgetfulness in a way that borders on sentimentality (and maybe even crosses over) but remains compelling. Most impressive of all is Aquino, riveting as a woman who is nearly ready to give up on her own deteriorating body but nevertheless takes the time to honestly examine the case of a student in need and reminds Laurie that their job as teachers is to help students expand their horizons.

Third is sure to push the buttons of self-identified liberals who may be unwilling to take a look at their own shortcomings, yet Wasserstein has not crafted a satire of liberalism. Instead, she's written a thoughtful play that challenges our perceptions.