Performance Contexts: Wendy Wasserstein’s Third in Los Angeles

I’ve promised myself not to apologize for those months when I don’t have time to post, but my guilt persists. Suffice it to say that October was filled with preparing for travel to give lectures and trying to get the two classes I’m teaching this semester up to speed. As a result, my theatre, film, and book consumption dropped precipitously, along with the requisite time for writing.

Still (now that I have broken my own promise and apologized), I did see one production during my trip to Los Angeles about which it’s worth sharing my thoughts. I was invited by my friend and colleague Sue-Ellen Case’s Center for Performance Studies at UCLA to participate in two public events at the Geffen Playhouse around its production of Wendy Wasserstein’s last play, Third.Because the play is about an ostensibly feminist professor and her hostile encounter with a white male student taking her Shakespeare class, the UCLA Center programmed a panel discussion on feminist pedagogy in which I participated with another guest, followed by a talk I delivered solo on Wasserstein’s life and her work, focusing on Third as exemplary.

Although the Center had scrupulously arranged for the Geffen events to appeal to public audiences, the theatre staff neglected to announce the ancillary program to its subscribers. Rather than addressing a mixed audience of academics and community folk, I found myself in a room off the Geffen’s lobby preaching to the converted—a crowd of mostly women faculty and students from UCLA. Nonetheless, as performance artist Holly Hughes once said, the converted need their affirmations, too.

I’ve long proposed that we stage “talk befores” in addition to “talk backs” during the run of our university theatre productions, since I believe that describing the context in which to consider a play might enhance spectators’ reception experiences. Whether or not you’ve read the play you’re about to see, and whether or not it’s a premiere or canonical, I find it helpful to discuss in advance the issues raised, the potential production choices and acting decisions available to be made, and ideas to watch for as the play unfolds before us in time and space.

Some artists insist that such pre-show discussions “cheat” spectators of a tabula rasa encounter with a play. Some even dismiss talk backs afterwards, accusing them of fixing interpretation or quarreling with the production, rather than seeing these occasions as a chance to tease out a play’s multiple meanings, to argue over conflicting perspectives, and to address the social affects any production leaves in its wake.

At UT, we’ve attempted to create a discourse community in which to embed production practice in a variety of ways. For several years, the students in our graduate Performance as Public Practice (PPP) program ran “After Words,” a series of talk backs that discussed university theatre productions once or twice each semester. They invited all students and faculty to join the conversation, but at a typical After Words, perhaps 20 people attended, most of them involved in the productions at hand, or other students for whom the plays raised issues or touched nerves.

Recently, to create a discussion context for a production of Maria Irene Fornes’s landmark feminist play Fefu and Her Friends, PPP students Carrie Kaplan and Ray Matthews, who co-dramaturged the production, organized what they called feminist “salons,” afternoon gatherings outside the show’s performance frame to which they invited faculty and others to engage in informal discussions about feminism and performance. I love the idea of salons, because they center attention on a play or production or performance in a social and intellectual context in which it can be examined and more widely and diversely connected.

Given my interest in contextualizing performance, I was pleased to be invited to participate in the pre-show discussion events at the Geffen in LA.

According to American Theatre’s October 2007 season preview feature, in addition to the one I saw at the Geffen, productions of Third are planned at a number of regional theatres around the country. Wasserstein’s death 18 months ago brought attention to Third as the inadvertent finale of her career. In many ways, Third foreshadows Wasserstein’s death from lymphoma at age 55; the play takes an elegiac tone toward not only the feminist movement it critiques (rendering it a companion piece to Wasserstein’s 1989 The Heidi Chronicles), but to the choices all women make to shape and lead their lives.

Wasserstein once said that she distributes her autobiography among the characters in her plays. Her protagonist in Third, Professor Laurie Jameson, has a friend and colleague, Nancy, who suffers from cancer. At the beginning of the play, she’s come out of remission after seven cancer-free years and gone back into chemo, bitter that her reprieve ended so suddenly. Although Nancy’s illness no doubt represents some of the playwright’s preoccupations as she neared her own death, “heroine” Laurie Jameson’s crisis of confidence about feminism indicates another angle on Wasserstein’s final concerns.

Third launches its debate about feminist politics on the campus of an unnamed elite college somewhere in New England, where young white men with numerals after their names could reasonably be expected to come from families of wealth and power. Woodson Bull the Third, in fact, who becomes Laurie Jameson’s antagonist, seems made of such aristocratic stock. He’s a wrestler, an athlete on a campus that denigrates such sport. He’s also rather forward with Laurie, approaching her early in the play with his desire to set up a personal screening of a film version ofKing Lear she requires for her course. He’s not asking for special favors so much as he’s privileging his wrestling over attending her course screening. He manages to secure a copy of the film to see on his own time, but his ploy makes Laurie immediately suspicious.

Laurie’s instant dislike toward Third, though, seems predicated less on his rather over-earnest and somewhat entitled attitude, and more on “the Third” that ends his name (if not the “Woodson” that begins it, which she immediately and somewhat sexually shortens to “Woody” in their first conversation). When Third (as Woodson prefers to be called) eventually turns in a beautifully written paper with a sophisticated argument about Lear, Laurie jumps to the conclusion that he’s plagiarized his work.

Through the play’s subsidiary characters, Wasserstein indicts Laurie for her assumptions about Third. Her ill friend Nancy sides with the student, even as she runs the faculty investigation into the dispute. Her daughter Zoë aggressively rejects Laurie’s strident politics, and even her senile father dismisses her work as so much talk about nothing. In the process, Wasserstein once again damns U.S. feminism as irrelevant, trapped without resonance in a 20-year-old stasis.

As in The Heidi Chronicles, Wasserstein structures her perspective through multiple levels, which makes it difficult to disparage the play out of hand. In some ways, she gets feminism “right.” For instance, we find out (although much too late in the play) that Laurie was the first woman to be tenured on this fictional campus, an important part of her back story, since it explains her sensitivity and her tendency toward knee-jerk responses to politics instead of more rational thinking.

Throughout the play, Laurie and Nancy alternate between allying with and distancing themselves from a male colleague they consider a “neo-con pig.” But instead of exploring the emotional baggage that comes from being a pioneer in a conservative institution, Wasserstein uses Laurie’s history to criticize her hidebound perspectives on masculinity and entitlement, men and wealth. The journey toward emotional growth through which she ushers her character proves Third—the ingenuous, intellectually agile innocent—to be the agent of Laurie’s change, implicitly demeaning her in the process.

The Geffen production, directed by Maria Mileaf—who was recently profiled in American Theatre as an important young director—failed to ameliorate the play’s sticky ideological problems. Mileaf’s static direction left the actors physically frozen on the wide, empty set, and often forced them simply to talk to each other without doing anything. In fact, I’ve rarely seen a realist production with so few props, with so little “stuff” onstage to create atmosphere and place and to define characters in action. While this choice might support Wasserstein’s critique of feminism’s “empty” program, good theatre requires a more active, precise, and layered sense of scene, pace, and progression.

The production’s archaic scenic technology also hampered what might have been a more fluid, subtle study. At the end of each of the play’s short scenes, blackouts, filled with peculiar original music that sounded deaf to the play’s tone, covered stagehands moving furniture on and off stage. Christine Lahti, who’s in most of the scenes performing as Laurie Jameson, exited and re-entered each time. Watching her unfortunate comings and goings broke the through-line of the action and forced spectators to keep renewing their focus on and commitment to the character.

Lahti played Laurie with relative ease and warmth, considering that the character could easily come across as an ice queen. Diane Wiest originated the role in its premiere production at Lincoln Center Theatre (directed by Daniel Sullivan). Although painfully thin and probably 10 years too young for the role, Lahti’s congenial, affable presence softened the professor’s harder edges and nearly succeeded in making Laurie Jameson sympathetic.

Ironically, while Wasserstein’s script describes Laurie wearing flowing skirts and dangling earrings, in this production, Laurie dressed in close-fitting, stylish power suits that looked more corporate than old-fashioned feminist. While the sartorial appointments Wasserstein suggests at least mark Laurie within a cultural moment that refused the accessories of capitalism, the costume design embraced for the Geffen production visually positioned Laurie within the codes of “power feminism.” The choice both made her plight more relevant and extended the play’s indictment to contemporary feminists in business, as well as in the academy.

Ultimately, though, the play and the production intended to demonize Laurie, a goal too difficult even for a deft, smart actor like Lahti to overcome. By the play’s end, Lahti—a tall woman who towered over her fellow actors—seemed dwarfed by the other characters’ moralizing denigration of everything in which Laurie believes. If the script weren’t painful enough, watchingLahti apologize to Third in his dorm room as he packed to leave the college coul only make a feminist spectator grit her teeth at Jameson’s good-humored response to her humiliation.

Jayne Brook played Jameson’s friend Nancy, striking an easy rapport between the two women. She maintained enough critical distance on her colleague to let us know that not all women professors abuse their students—only feminist ones like Laurie who continue “holding the torch” instead of facing up to the so-called reality that feminism failed women. Nancy rejects Laurie’s attempts to help her friend through her latest chemo. Instead, Nancy transfers her affections to a Jewish rabbi also battling cancer with whom she argues about Israel and Palestinewhile they both receive their treatments. Nancy announces she’s taking an extended leave of absence at the play’s end to escape from the confines of the academy with the rabbi at her side.

Even Nancy’s choice to commit to a heterosexual marriage instead of dedicating herself to the academic feminist cause implicitly criticizes Laurie for her own determined beliefs. Laurie’s husband—whom the audience never sees—teaches political science, but their savvy, cynical daughter Zoë accuses Laurie of withholding her love for him because he’s not as successful or ambitious as his wife.

By contrast, Laurie’s Cordelia-like loyalty to her senile, Lear-like father, desperately overplayed in the Geffen production by M. Emmet Walsh, proves poignant and unshakeable, even as he blusters about the set descending into madness. Her father might demean her occupation and her intellect, but Laurie stays by his side, shoring up her patriarch while she otherwise rails against patriarchy. This calculated contradiction adds to the character’s deficits, subtly shifting the audience’s sympathy away from Laurie toward her nemesis.

This brings us to Third, the boy wonder who turns out to be nothing like Laurie expects.Although those numbers burden his genealogy, it turns out his father works as a small-town lawyer. Third attends this fancy school on scholarship, which he supplements by working as a bartender in town. Third’s insights into Lear come from a really good teacher he had in high school, an instructor remarkably pure and erudite, compared to Laurie Jameson’s obviously partial, biased concern with undoing hegemony through her analysis of literature.

Wasserstein endows Third, in fact, with all the graces Laurie lacks. His genuine curiosity about people leads him to take gay and lesbian studies classes along with courses in Shakespeare; he’s read widely in the subaltern literature of the day. He purposefully puts himself in situations that “other” him, and admits that even Laurie’s negative attention and accusations about his scholarship made him more interesting than he’ll ever be to anyone again as a conventional white, middle-class, heterosexual male.

The character provides a cheap foil, and at the Geffen, Matt Czuchry played Third as an immature frat boy with irritating verbal ticks that made his every speech sound like he was announcing a football game. He stood stiffly, posing without conviction, and appeared broad, butch, and boring, hardly an appropriate adversary for someone as strong and smart as Laurie Jameson.

And that, finally, is the play’s most heinous gesture—to reduce a woman of achievement to a petty, pouting lout forced into a skirmish whose outcome even she knows won’t affect society.Laurie demonstrates her political zeal throughout the play by listening incessantly to news reports of Bush’s invasion of Iraq and his subsequent dissembling about troop numbers and casualties.But the arena in which she wields her own political power has shrunk to a miniscule mat on which she and the finally insignificant Woodson Bull the Third wrestle with the white male privilege that Wasserstein had the nerve to portray as chimerical.

At the end, Laurie walks the many steps to Third’s dorm room to eat crow. She ruefully admits that she set out to change the world, and all she changed was the English department.She’s left regretting her own ideas, while Third redeems her with his casual forgiveness and suggests that she “stick with the hope” instead of the irony.

What a shame that The Heidi Chronicles’s Heidi Holland had to grow up into Third’s Laurie Jameson without learning anything about real feminism along the way.

Still holding the torch,

The Feminist Spectator

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2 thoughts on “Performance Contexts: Wendy Wasserstein’s Third in Los Angeles

  1. As a fellow alum of Wasserstein’s women’s college alma mater, a theatre artist and a feminist I am consummately disappointed in her plays that cast feminism as naive, self-obsessed, irrational and unsympathetic. What’s more, the way she portrayed feminism did not shed new light on it, but rather reinforced common perceptions. I’m in my mid-twenties, surrounded by well-educated, liberal people in their 20’s and 30’s. And among these peers I feel like a lonely feminist. To the men and many women, feminism is a bad word (like the opposite and equal in its evilness to neo-con) or they believe we’ve entered a post-feminist era. Even among those who take on the feminist moniker, they subscribe to a Wassersteinian feminism that desires women should break the glass ceiling, but once it’s broken we should stop our whining. They’re not signing on for a revolution and they’re threatened by voices that criticize the more insidious forms of oppression in our society. The subtext I hear in Wasserstein’s plays and the women around me is that they feel they have something to lose if feminism were to win. It seems that to them, subscribing to feminism would be as good as admitting that they can’t succeed in this world. My women friends think they’re stronger than that. Perhaps they want into the boys club, and so don’t want to dismantle it. They fail to see that the feminist struggle isn’t about reversing who’s wearing the boot that sits on the neck of the oppressed, but about changing the picture altogether. The man who beats his wife to assert his masculinity has nearly as much to gain from feminism as the woman who will be freed from his fists.
    How do we reach people who share Wasserstein’s perspective on feminism? How do we break down the defenses around what they see as their individual power?
    What’s the counter-point play that UCLA could stage and have talk-forwards about?

  2. Deborah, thanks for this thoughtful comment, and for your useful, difficult questions. Yes, what is the counter-play we might stage? I can think of lots of women playwrights whose plays are resoundingly feminist, and give us much more of a progressive look at feminism as a political movement (and at women in general). But it does seem like their names aren’t as popular (and therefore producable) as Wendy Wasserstein’s.

    I recently saw Adrienne Kennedy’s OHIO STATE MURDERS in New York (and hope to blog about it shortly), which is about an African American woman who becomes an intellectual/professor. The whole play is set in an academic milieu, and Kennedy eloquently critiques its racism and its sexism. I doubt, though, that despite the quality of the production I saw, the Kennedy play would get as much traction as Wasserstein’s already has.

    In terms of why people won’t accept that feminism is a useful social critique that would empower both men and women, and hopefully people across class and race, I think the media has done an excellent job of poisoning the well. It redounds to us, then, to keep re-educating people about feminism’s possibilities, to break through the convenient media stereotypes that suggest feminism is “over” and ineffectual.

    Since you graduated from Mount Holyoke, it’d probably be really useful for you to stage this conversation about feminism perhaps in their alumni magazine, perhaps as a way of calling attention to how one of their no doubt favorite “daughters” has sold the movement short. They might listen to you and give you a necessary forum for your very important thoughts.

    Thanks for writing; keep writing!

    My best, Jill

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