Photograph by David Allen
LEAR MONGERS: A professor (Elizabeth Norment) wonders if her student (Craig Marker) is up to Shakespeare.
Who's on Third
A female prof grades way off the curve in 'Third'
By Marianne Messina
WENDY WASSERSTEIN let topical references, one of her trademarks, have a lighter grip on her final play, Third, TheatreWorks' current production. Professor Laurie Jameson (Elizabeth Norment) is in a midlife tailspin, her speech—allusions not so current, literary quotes not so searing—calcified; Laurie's friend, professor Nancy Gordon (a varied and colorful performance by Amy Resnick), struggling with cancer, is even more plainspoken. Laurie homes in like a gored bull on a student athlete she believes has committed plagiarism in her class, Woodson Bull III (Craig Marker)—as he prefers, "Third," or as she prefers, Woody, with all the innuendo intact. When Third asks Nancy's advice about how to prepare for his plagiarism hearing, she tells him, "Just show up and get through it." Third seems to be playing with uncertainty and contradiction as well as words. Laurie has hot flashes to coincide with her anger, and just after she complains that King Lear (the subject of Third's disputed paper) "can't be reduced to sublimated desire," she falls into a dream sequence that reduces her obsession with Third to sublimated desire.
Wonderfully staged by director Kristen Brandt, Laurie strips off her blouse and crawls in her cherry-red bra over the table after Third like a cat. Shining the red light of sexual energy on the scene, lighting designer David Lee Cuthbert helps make this climactic, symbolic moment also vivid and colorful. Sadly overextended, the concrete image loses something as it veers into abstraction—the lighting blanches, the choreography ambles enigmatically.
Part of the bittersweetness of this play is the passing of the gauntlet, one generation to another. Laurie loses relevance to her daughter, Emily (Emilie Miller mixing youthful rebellion and intellectual sophistication in enjoyable proportions). Laurie reintroduces herself endlessly to her Alzheimer's-addled father, Jack (Gerald Hiken, who leaves these scenes light-hearted and gentle on the humor). Hiken and Norment stage a brief ballroom dance, with Benny Goodman playing through the house, that makes a lovely parting image. Scenic designer J.B. Wilson turns the passing seasons into a presence as arrays of leaves continuously flank the windows and sets, going from fall orange to black and barren winter twig to expansive summer green. Other scenic choices are more questionable—like drab, visually overbearing walls in dried-upchuck green.
The production also features a couple of embarrassing grandstand moments where characters turn too obviously to the audience (when they have other characters to talk to). To wit, Laurie's epiphany that "sometimes your protection becomes your confinement," but most egregiously Third's speech—in a microphone to the students (us)—about how snotty intellectuals at exclusive schools exert cruel, hurtful biases against hard-working, heartland jocks. (Waaaah.) Yet so many other things are excellent about this show, down to the wonderful mandolin/guitar music. Craig Marker gives us likeable and intelligent, with just enough Gomer to substantiate Laurie's "meathead jock" stereotype on first glance. The play's ending is more bittersweet in the context of Wasserstein's passing two years ago and given a sense of the fluid, new worlds she might have created.
THIRD, a TheatreWorks production, plays Tuesday–Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursday–Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm and Sunday at 2 and 7pm through Feb. 10 at the Mountain view Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $20–$56. (650.903.6000)
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