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Horizon Theatre’s Third skewers academe's liberal prejudice

Late playwright Wendy Wasserstein's final work offers intriguing King Lear parallels

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Professor Laurie Jameson exhorts her students to challenge the dominant power structure and antiquated ways of thinking at the outset of Wendy Wasserstein’s Third. Played by Mary Lynn Owen, Laurie doesn’t quite realize she belongs to the dominant power structure as a lauded literature professor at a Northeastern college, the kind of liberal bulwark that boasts America’s first transgender dorm, but no fraternities.

Laurie must confront her own complacency and preconceived notions with the enrollment of a new student, Woodson Bull III (Will Bradley), a college wrestler who prefers to go by “Third” and aspires to be a sports agent. Laurie quickly pegs him as a Young Republican jock-type born with a silver spoon in his mouth. The beginning of the play, directed by Lisa Adler at Horizon Theatre, coincides with the U.S. congressional vote to authorize the Iraq War. Third reminds Laurie of all the reasons she hates George W. Bush. His paper on King Lear sets off an academic scandal that causes the professor to badly misunderestimate the student.

King Lear imagery runs throughout Wasserstein’s play, from Laurie’s opening lecture to the dementia suffered by her father (Tom Thon), who’s prone to wander off in the New England weather. Looser parallels to Lear also define Laurie, particularly in her wrath against young people who tell her unwanted truths. Audiences can argue whether the play’s Cordelia turns out to be Third or Laurie’s collegiate daughter (Cara Mantella).

Wasserstein died of lymphoma in 2006 at the age of 55, only a few months after Third’s debut. In the play, Laurie’s friend and colleague Nancy (Marianne Fraulo) suffers from breast cancer, and Wasserstein’s fate in real life adds poignancy to the plot. Fraulo conveys such pluck and intellectual heft in the role that one wonders how Horizon’s Third would have fared had Fraulo and Owen switched characters. Owen’s performance seems on the verge of drifting toward light comedy — she wriggles amusingly on her shrink’s couch during an unfulfilling therapy session — and it’s difficult to imagine Owen as an intimidating lioness of academe.

Bradley offers an enormously likable and solid portrayal of Third. Over the course of the play, the character nearly comes across as too good to be true, but given that Third hinges on that very conundrum, one can excuse the role’s near perfection. In Third, Wasserstein provides a persuasive portrait of college life from either side of the desk, and offers a fresh, seriocomic take on the kind of campus dust-up play like Spinning Into Butter or Oleanna. Plus, beyond Laurie’s personal and professional crises, Third offers an insightful perspective on liberal anger in the Dubya years. Wasserstein takes the Left to task for losing touch with the American mainstream and suggests that those who teach may have lost the ability to learn.

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