Third

Like its college professor heroine, this play flunks Reality 101.

From everything I've heard about her, Wendy Wasserstein — who succumbed to cancer last year at the age of 55 — seems to have been one of the nicest people imaginable: funny, warm and kind. Still, her plays have always tended to leave me cold. So perhaps it's a step forward that Third, her last work, left me not indifferent, but angry.

The play tells the story of a middle-aged academic, Laurie Jameson, a feminist scholar and the first woman to achieve tenure at the prestigious liberal arts college where she teaches. After a lecture on King Lear, in which she explains that Goneril and Regan are the play's true heroes, while Lear is a representative of the repressive patriarchal system and Cordelia a sentimental simpleton, she's asked a question by a student who appears to represent everything she's spent her life fighting: a cheerful, white, male athlete named Woodson Bull III (or Third, as he likes to be called), whom she immediately categorizes as a young George W. Bush. When this kid eventually produces a brilliant paper, she assumes it's plagiarized and hauls him before an academic honors committee. But the paper is Third's own; he is vindicated and Laurie shamed.

This is only one of the many ways in which her life is falling apart. Nancy, a close friend, is dying of cancer and rejects Jameson's help: "I don't want to be one of your causes." Her father is descending into the darkness of Alzheimer's; her husband — never seen on stage — is going through a midlife crisis that has him incessantly lifting weights. Even Laurie's two daughters disappoint her. The youngest, Emily, dates a bank teller and, before the play is over, drops out of Swarthmore. The older (a second off-stage character) at least has the grace to be a lesbian and a crafter of organic cheese, but she has no further ambitions. As if all this weren't enough, poor Laurie suffers from hot flashes.

The plot is utterly unconvincing. Gifted students do indeed pop up in classrooms everywhere, but it strains credulity that a twenty-year-old has the stuff to come up with a publication-worthy theory — the work, as Laurie comments, of an advanced scholar — on a play that's been dissected by some of the best minds in the world. Laurie's own reading of King Lear is dumb (though not a lot dumber than some queer and feminist theory I've heard), but Third's counter-interpretation, which has an incestuous Lear lusting for his daughter Cordelia, is even dumber.

Other things that strain credulity: the idea that a student could be hauled up for plagiarism in any university without one shred of evidence against him; Laurie eventually placing her sash around Third's neck and metaphorically bestowing her doctorate and her intellectual legacy upon him; Nancy's miraculous recovery, courtesy of a bone marrow transplant; Jack Jameson's Alzheimer's, which is treated as a lightweight affair told in a tone that wavers between comedy and pathos, and culminating in a sentimental dance in the rain.

While leftists can be as self-righteous and bullying as rightists, Laurie goes beyond that into one-dimensional caricature — a woman who hectors everyone she meets, and is as angered by a sexist word as by the invasion of Iraq. Even the luminous Caitlin O'Connell can't make us feel for her. The other characters are vaguely defined. We like Mattie Hawkinson's Emily, but have no idea what makes her tick, other than anger at her mother. And what is the nature of Laurie's friendship with Nancy (Patricia Randell), besides the latter periodically admonishing the former to appreciate life as it is? Do they ever discuss teaching or have a couple of beers together? Third is played with charm and presence by Billy Wheelan, but he, too, never becomes a real human being.

Professor-student entanglements are a staple of current drama and fiction, probably because so many writers teach. A few years ago, Francine Prose savaged academic hypocrisy in her novel Blue Angel, in which a self-absorbed professor is undone by a manipulative student — or perhaps the professor is the manipulator. What Prose provided was complexity, surprise, shiftings and shadings of guilt, a devastating dissection of human weakness. But while Third also raises crucial issues — not only the dark side of feminism, but mother-daughter conflict, the meaning of life in the face of death – it fails to explore them in any depth.

Supposed liberal bias in academia is a hot topic right now, and Colorado has been at the epicenter of David Horowitz's nationwide campaign to promote the idea and curtail speech on campus. Talk-show hosts have exhorted students to expose their professors; right-wingers attack educators at every level, from the elementary school teacher in Bennett suspended for showing students twelve minutes of an educational sock puppet video on Gounod's Faust, to Jay Bennish, suspended for "Bush bashing" in an Overland High geography class, to the brouhaha whipped up by the Bill O'Reilly gang over a panel about sex and drugs at Boulder High. In a different environment, I might have been mildly disappointed by Third. In this one, I felt betrayed and afraid.

 
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