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The rule of 'Third' ; Wasserstein play questions what we think we know

Nobody is right all of the time, and for the people who think they are, that can be a pretty hard lesson.

It's even harder for those who refuse to learn it.

The late playwright Wendy Wasserstein wrestles with that idea, and the greater uncertainties of life -- and death -- in her often comic if somewhat disjointed final play, "Third," which is having its Western New York premiere at the Kavinoky Theatre.

"Third" isn't a major play, like "The Heidi Chronicles," which won Wasserstein a Pulitzer Prize and Tony award; it is an introspective take on what we might consider common knowledge. Part of what is discovered here is that, just because everyone knows something doesn't make it true.

Professor Laurie Jameson (Eileen Dugan) is the central, Wasserstein-esque character, with a high-ranking post at an exclusive, liberal arts college. She opens the play delivering a welcoming lecture to her class, boasting that under her auspices there will be no tolerance for anything "hetero-sexist, racist or classist."

"Don't be afraid to challenge me -- or the dominant culture," she announces.

Ah, but woe to he who does. Woodson Bull III (Patrick Cameron), otherwise known as Third, finds that out.

Third came to college to wrestle, study and graduate, as he puts it, only to wind up embodying everything his English professor believes is wrong with the country, the world, the campus, maybe even with her family and her friendships.

Faster than a trucker can call a waitress "Hon," Jameson pegs Third as an undeserving, pampered son of privilege (his father and grandfather went to the school). When he turns in a paper that is a "coherent, psychosexual interpretation" of King Lear, Jameson declares that Third, "a walking Red State," could not possibly have written it.

"Are you accusing me of stealing based on socioeconomic profiling?" Third exclaims, summing up the central plot device of the play in one question.

The play is set after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, with President George W. Bush on his march to war and Americans still adjusting to this brand new world of uncertainty and fear.

It echoes the uncertainty in Laurie's once oh-so-certain life. But now her friend Nancy (Colleen Gaughan, very sharp and funny here) is fighting cancer, and her daughter Emily (Anne Roaldi) is in love with a (gasp!) bank teller. Also in the house is her father, in the throes of dementia. Saul Elkin makes the most of this small role, raging against his fate while refusing to acknowledge it: "You can't fool me," he hollers. "I'm Jack Jameson and I still know what I know!"

Of course, he doesn't, which is the point of "Third." What does anyone really know? And, in the long run, how much does it matter?

The production is solid, moving at a quick pace with a short intermission and it's over before you look twice at your watch. Wasserstein died of cancer at age 55, not long after finishing this play, and you can't help making assumptions of how her illness may have affected her writing. Laurie has a "therapy session" monologue to help anchor the play, but other scenes seem out of place, even unnecessary -- especially a feel-good ending that could be excised with no harm done at all.

But the actors carry it off splendidly, handling the smart dialogue with finesse, although everyone does sound a lot like Wasserstein. They also do their best with the steeply tiered set, which serves to represent the gates of academia but limits the cast's movement.

A favorite scene is Dugan and Gaughan, goofing around as good buddies, singing "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening" to the tune of "Hernando's Hideaway."

Moments like that, where hope overcomes irony, along with the inescapable uncertainty of either, make "Third" the kind of play you could easily find quibbles with, but are bound to talk about on the way home.

e-mail: mmiller@buffnews.com

***

"Third"    

3 stars (out of 4)    
WHEN: Through Feb. 6    
WHERE: Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Ave.    
TICKETS: $32 to $36    
INFO: 829-7668, www.kavinokytheatre.com

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