By Brooks Appelbaum

In a puzzling move, TheaterWorks has opened its 30th anniversary season with Third, Wendy Wasserstein’s final work of 2004 -- a contrived and oddly unconvincing play in which the author sets up a potentially fascinating situation, only to add in too many other plots, themes, and relationships, all vying for equal attention.

In works such as Uncommon Women and Others, The Sisters Rosensweig, and The Heidi Chronicles, Wasserstein has displayed a unique balance between searching questions and witty dialogue. But here, even Rob Ruggiero’s expert directing, along with a stellar cast, can’t salvage the story.

The production opens with Dr. Laurie Jameson (a marvelous Kate Levy), professor at an un-named, highly selective New England college, presenting to her students a radical, feminist re-interpretation of King Lear. This speech sets the tone for her character: she has fought her entire life against the university’s closed-minded, patriarchal culture, and she has succeeded, ultimately, in creating an environment where those who usually feel themselves to be the outsiders of society -- women, people of color, the LGBT community -- are very much on the inside. What she hasn’t noticed, and what the play most promisingly offers as its high-stakes theme, is that she herself has become as close-minded and cause-bound as those she deplores.

Dramatizing this theme is a conflict with one of her students, Woodson Bull, III (who prefers that his friends call him “Third”). As Jameson’s student, Third has been nothing but polite and sincere. However, he is a serious wrestler; he plans to become a sports agent; and, in Jameson’s eyes, he is “a walking red state” who embodies the privilege and military aggression that marked the G.W. Bush administration then leading the country into war with Iraq. Based on all of these assumptions, when Third turns in a brilliantly argued, beautifully written essay on King Lear, she accuses him of plagiarism and pursues the charge.

Had Wasserstein focused on developing this relationship and plot, the play would be more dramaturgically coherent, and could also generate diamond-sharp human investigation and suspense. However, Third wanders away from this conflict and spends a great deal of time on Jameson’s personal woes: the hot flashes of menopause, the empty-nest syndrome, a demented father (the excellent Edmond Genest) who is clearly meant to represent Lear in an allusion that feels forced at best; and free-floating anxiety poured out to a silent, Freudian analyst.

By introducing Jameson’s friend, Nancy (the splendid Andrea Gallo), whose cancer, long in remission, has returned with punishing force, Wasserstein makes it even more difficult to sympathize with her protagonist’s discontents, which are, as Nancy points out, the discontents of most people lucky enough to reach middle-age.

The script’s weakness is especially disappointing because we see so much talent, onstage and in the production’s design. Most notably, Conor M. Hamill, playing Woodson Bull, III, turns in a remarkable performance. Hamill is quietly magnetic and yet absolutely convincing; his presence could save the evening if Third had more time onstage. The same could be said for Olivia Hoffman, as Emily, Jameson’s daughter. The best scene in the show, hands down, comes when Emily wanders into the bar where Third is working. Yes, we have marvelous dramatic irony here, but even more, we feel that we’ve walked into a wholly different, authentic world.

Rob Ruggiero, director and Artistic Director for TheaterWorks, has done his best with this script, though one still finds his choice of Third a strange one. Michael Schweikhardt’s beautiful sets, smoothly changed by way of a turntable, give us, at times, cool minimalism, and at other times a warmer, realistic atmosphere. The lighting and sound designs (by John Lasiter and Michael Miceli, respectively) compliment the production, and Harry Nadal’s costumes, along with Leah J. Loukas’ wig designs help immensely to tell these characters’ stories.

One only wishes that Wasserstein could have drawn herself away from a female protagonist, just this once- -- or, if not that, given Woodson Bull, III a fair and equal hearing.

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