Monday, September 22, 2008

Third by Wendy Wasserstein, Paradox Players at the Unitarian Universalist Church, September 19 - October 5

Thanks to Paradox Players for giving us the opportunity to see this 2005 piece by the late Wendy Wasserstein, acknowledged by the New York Times as “a chronicler of women’s identity crises.”

To be honest, I hated it.

Not the production, which is a good effort, but the play itself.

First let me explain the concept of a “visceral twinge.”

When I began work involving lengthy assignments abroad, the single most useful bit of counseling was provided by an animated, red-bearded actor whose subject was the difficulties of confronting cultural differences and working through them.

Yes, you can learn to eat teff and njera or bulgogi or tieboujin and you can learn to communicate in a foreign language. But there will come that moment when you face something commonplace in a foreign culture that literally makes your insides ball up in a knot. Not necessarily food. It could be the obsessive closeness of foreigners, their toilet habits, their enthusiasms or their treatment of one another. Something, somewhere, sometime is going to get you and give you a visceral twinge so hard that it will make you aware for the first time of cultural holy precepts that you absorbed while growing up.

This play gave me that visceral twinge. The twinge was so profound and unexpected that I perhaps I have to trace it back to my own decision once upon a time to abandon a Ph.D. program in comparative literature.

Part of the twinge is certainly due to the opening scene set at an unnamed elite liberal arts college. Radical feminist scholar Professor Laurie Jameson explains with condescending pedantry that King Lear is really the story of how the dominant male culture oppressed Lear’s older daughters Goneril and Regan.

Boy, did that ever get up my nose.

The play, in brief, gives us the midlife crisis of Professor Jameson during the very specific period September 2002 to May 2003, as the country rolled into the war in Iraq. She is in danger of crumpling from pressure.

She is an obsessive watcher of television news; her daughter drops out from Swarthmore to live with a bank teller and wait tables; her best friend Professor Nancy Gordon faces a recurrence of breast cancer, deep depression and chemotherapy. Her father, living with the family, is deep in the absences of senile dementia and we learn that somehow, somewhere, he probably abused her when she was young. We never see her husband, a political science professor, and the only evidence that unnamed man exists is the sound of barbells hitting the floor in the attic. And there is the teaching schedule, eviscerating Shakespeare, and preparing to take over her friend’s spring course in the letters of 19th century female English authors.

These are complex tribulations and they allow Bobbie Oliver as Jameson to draw a vivid portrait of this petulant, detail-obsessed, whining self-righteous academic. I did not like the character but I found her fully, convincingly defined.

But the crux of the play, the confrontation on which it turns, is Jameson’s irrational, self-righteous (that word again!) dislike and then persecution of Woodson Bull the Third, known as “Third” (hence the title of the play). Handsome, frank, intelligent, and a varsity wrestler, “Third” is happy to take courses in feminist interpretation of Shakespeare and gay & lesbian studies, but his healthy gosh-gee-whiz attitude earns him only her contempt. Among other things, without any evidence she is convinced that he is a Republican. The boy is a sociology major with the dream of becoming an agent for a sports celebrity.

Jameson accuses “Third” of plagiarizing his paper on Lear, which offers a Freudian interpretation of the attraction between Lear and Cordelia. She persists, with no evidence, insisting that “Third” simply could not have produced such a coherent analysis on his own, and she insists on a quasi-judicial hearing before a faculty council. Single-handedly she obliges the faculty to put him on academic probation in the meantime.

He defends himself ably. She loses. Academic probation has ruined his reputation and left him ruefully amazed. He will later arrange a transfer to Ohio State.

Then in the second act Wasserstein stitches things up so they are nice and tidy.

Demented Daddy, when she finds him in a rainstorm, doesn’t recognize her but asks for her forgiveness. Her friend Professor Gordon defeats cancer and finds a boyfriend. Her daughter doesn’t return but appears to be happily forgotten. By the end, demented Daddy has conveniently died. Professor Jameson says she is getting out of the academic grind, perhaps for good.

And for gosh sake, she goes to visit “Third” as he is packing up and brings him the gift of an book autographed by a noted lesbian writer. She offers to try to pull strings to get him the scholarship money Stanford denied him because he was on academic probation.

“Third,” the good-natured future king of the world, declines the offer but forgives her and carries her bags out for her.

Now, remember the “visceral twinge”? Here we go: I cannot stand the indulgent depiction of academic dishonesty on the part of a professional, no matter how lunatic, and I cannot swallow the fact that Wasserstein makes happy at the end, letting her get away with it.

Congratulations to Bobbie Oliver for inhabiting this ignoble character and giving a good account of her fragilities.

I liked Jan Phillips as her brutally frank professor friend. A thought experiment: if Phillips had been cast as the lead, we might have had a different Laurie Jameson – someone even more cutting and outrageous, whom we could feel justified in hating.

Mason Stewart as “Third” is likeable and vivid. He projects matter-of-fact and non-arrogant assurance, perfectly appropriate for a young man who will flourish when he escapes this hothouse world. He projects his voice as well, effortlessly and naturally.

Michael Hankin as Jack the dad doesn’t look quite old enough to be lost in the fog of dementia, but he is a fine actor with a roguish twinkle at just the right moments. Holly Kwasny as the professor’s daughter Emily provides the appropriate amount of young indignation at her mom’s irrationality.

The Howson Hall Theatre at the Unitarian Universalist Church is not a particularly kind playing space. It is very broad and not very elevated above the ranks of movable chairs spread before it. The director and cast appear not to have taken the sightlines of this wide hall into consideration for blocking the action, because actors are often turning backs or profiles to the audience as they address other characters. Perhaps misled by the apparent intimacy of the hall, Oliver and Kwasny are speaking much of the time from the throat rather than projecting so that we might hear them properly.

Inexplicably, the play is almost always under-lit and much is enacted at the back of the playing space.

The final twist in my visceral twinge came in the last scene, with the very sentence that Wasserstein must have meant to sum up the play.

“Third” confides to Jameson his ambitions in sports management and she tells him with girlish rue that she was exactly his age in 1969. “You will spend your next years in hope; I spent them in irony.”

Gack. Jameson and I are contemporaries. I made the decision to abandon textual analysis and academic ambition. She embraced them.

You make your bed, you lie in it. And you don’t dirty it with dishonesty.

Wikipedia on Wendy Wasserstein

NYT obituary of Wendy Wasserstein by Christopher Isherwood, January 30, 2006: "Wendy Wasserstein Dies at 55; Her Plays Spoke to A Generation" with images and multimedia links "

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