Opening Nights: Third


ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave. S.W., 938-0339, $45. 7:30 p.m. Wed.–Sat., 3 p.m. Sun. Ends March 22.

Liberal society tends to think of reverse-racism charges as the whine de coeur of the historically privileged. But what of that handsome white jock with the exalted last name (and Roman numeral III after it) whose family is broke and whose voracious intellect is doubted because of lefty academic prejudices ? Seems a bit farfetched in the abstract, but in Wendy Wasserstein’s 2005 dramedy, brought to life under Peggy Gannon’s gentle direction, the parable becomes an easy A, like Astronomy for Poets.

At an elite New England college, Professor Laurie Jameson (a well-cast Marty Mukhalian) preaches radical interpretations of King Lear—e.g., Regan and Goneril were the story’s heroines for overthrowing the patriarchy. Smartly played by Mark Tyler Miller, her student Woodson Bull III (he goes by “Third”) posits a well-supported alternative theory in an essay for her class. However, because he wrestles on the college team and aims to become a sports agent, she deems him incapable of having written it—a plagiarist, in other words. As she drags him before a disciplinary committee, the professor’s bitter, contemptuous spots come out in all their glory. (She dismisses Third as “practically a walking red state.”) This isn’t a Mamet-brutal exposé, but more a witty midlife reckoning for an ego-blinded pedant. Burton Yuen’s backdrop of renaissance-style clouds, framed in floating window frames, delicately suggests legacy, aspiration, epiphany, and mortality.

Strategically drawn supporting characters illuminate Prof. Jameson’s deficits like Scrooge’s ghosts: a colleague battling cancer (the marvelously earthbound Kate Witt), Jameson’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted dad (Bill Higham), and her college-age, not-radical-enough disappointment of a daughter (Kacey Shiflet). In her last play before her 2006 death, Wasserstein’s scenes range from conventional confrontations to more fanciful flights, like the red-light-drenched hot flash Jameson endures. Snippets of news and George W. Bush speeches allude to the Iraq War; it’s a clunky way of comparing W’s certainty about WMDs to Jameson’s about plagiarism.

This isn’t so rich or resonant a work as The Heidi Chronicles, but Mukhalian gives Jameson some depth. She’s pompous, clumsy, fragile, lost, and ridiculous (even dancing to PBS fund-drive concerts). Those qualities yield a touching (if slight) awakening of human conscience in the ivory tower—possibly in the audience, too.

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