Wendy Wasserstein’s final play, Third, made its debut in D.C. as a one act play at Theater J nine years ago. Its return this winter comes in a sturdy production by the Rockville Little Theatre at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre. It’s an interesting and self-analytical play that may cause those who live in a political bubble in New York or D.C. to look at themselves and find some of the traits they abhor in others: close-mindedness, pre-judging, and stereotyping.
Sarah Holt is just right as the English professor who transformed her New England liberal arts college, and perhaps academia, with her feminist approaches to literature. In middle age though, she seems a little worn down, obsessed by George W. Bush’s 2002 invasion of Iraq, too sure of herself, and distracted from her own family life—she (like the audience), never sees her husband, a political science professor, ensconced away, working out or riding motorcycles.
Enter a bright young man in her class who is a wrestler, whose schedule conflicts with a required screening of King Lear. Because his name is Woodson Bull III and prefers to be called “Third,” she assumes he is a child of privilege and assigns him all sorts of traits, socially and politically. He becomes to her a “walking red state,” an anathema to her being. So when he comes up with a particularly brilliant first paper on Lear, that also disagrees with her feminist approach, she charges him with plagiarism based solely on her “woman’s” intuition.
To this conflict Wasserstein adds the professor’s own relationship with her daughter who opts to drop out of Swathmore to live in New Jersey with a bank teller, an elderly father who is losing touch with memory and reality, and a fellow teacher who is under treatment for cancer and suggests a more hopeful, optimistic look on life over the practiced cynicism of the professor’s liberalism. Irony is poignant in light of the fact that Wasserstein herself died from cancer a few weeks after Third closed after a three month run off Broadway.
It’s an interesting and self-analytical play that may cause those who live in a political bubble in New York or D.C. to look at themselves and find some of the traits they abhor in others…
The Rockville production made me wonder how the work might have played as a one-act; it seems that a lot of what the play had to say was accomplished before intermission. There’s a bit of interaction between the daughter and Third at a bar, and more with the father. But mostly the second act has to do with moving on, coming to terms with what’s happened, and finding out how the characters go forward. And it’s a sign of a good play that we care what happens to them.
In addition to Holt’s bravura performance, Alex Badalov is just right as Third, and he makes a strong case about the role of athletes in a selective liberal arts school who also happen to be scholars. Diana Partridge is good as the daughter and Jill Goodrich is just a little uneven as the friend with cancer. Lizzi Albert’s production opening night showed there was work to do with the rhythms of the dialog. The general rushing of lines meant some of the intended comedy dissolved; they’ll likely get more into a groove the more they’re used to performing before audiences.
Maggie Modig’s set was suitable for a college campus — the pillars of education in the background getting off kilter as the night went on. The lighting by Peter Caress was also a little off on opening night: parts of the stage that characters would eventually inhabit were lit long before they got there from the shadows.
The sound mix employed music from the era, which was not so long ago; its songs continue to play today, just as many of the issues of a decade ago linger as well today (though they may not for all time). The production sound man is also notable for the great line in his program bio: “Kevin O’Connell has received 20 Oscar nominations for best sound since 1984 and never won one, an all-time record for any category.” That’s a different Kevin O’Connell from the one who designed the sound for this play but still…”
Running time: Two hours, with one 15 minute intermission.
Third runs through Feb. 3 at the F. Scott Fitzgerald, 603 Edmondston Drive, Rockville MD. Information click here, or call 240-314-8690.