Early in Wendy Wasserstein’s playwriting career, some wit dubbed her a “feminist misogynist,” an oxymoron that has queasily held true in the decades since. Compassionate by nature, and passionate in her desire to speak up for female equality, Wasserstein is nonetheless a satirist by instinct, an artist whose desire to be part of the ruling elite is only equaled by her impulse to ridicule it, and whose most deeply felt social avowals are counterbalanced by an apparently irresistible desire to puncture all deeply felt social avowals with the pearl-headed pin of comedy. At times Wasserstein has been able to balance her warring impulses; her new play, Third, shows that they can also pull her work apart.
Though its main character is a middle-aged female professor, Laurie Jameson (Dianne Wiest), Third is named for Laurie’s antagonist, a freshman who sports the country-clubbish moniker of Woodson Bull III (Jason Ritter). “Woody,” as she insists on calling him (he prefers “Third”), is taking Laurie’s Shakespeare course, presented by Wasserstein the satirist as a burlesque of feminist critiques, with Laurie making the literary canon the target for a jargon-spouting anti-patriarchal cannon of her own. She’s discomfited by Third’s resistance, by his intelligently contrary views, and most of all by the sexual charge his youthful presence provokes in her, at a time when her marriage has dried up, her father (Charles Durning) is lapsing into Lear-like senility, and her daughter (Gaby Hoffman) is openly rebellious. Half the play seems a gender-reversed cabaret-sketch version of Mamet’s Oleanna (nakedly incompetent teacher with sex in mind bullies troublesome student); the other half suggests something more tenderly autumnal, a college-level Goodbye, Ms. Chips. The two tend to cancel each other out, though Wiest, apparently now Off-Broadway’s standard-gauge traumatized intellectual mom, invests Laurie’s dual facets with fervor and authority. Hoffman and Ritter are sweet as the young people whom no sane society would ever put under this clearly schizoid woman’s charge, while Amy Aquino paints a sharp, lively portrait of a more reasonable colleague.