It is a tradition in regional theatre that when an artistic director is going to resign or retire, s/he will opt to produce King Lear. Therefore, it is most befitting that in Wendy Wasserstein’s final play Third, this grand dame of the regional theatre should choose this work as her inspiration. Perhaps it is serendipity or perhaps Wasserstein, who died from cancer last year, saw this as her swan song. Whatever the reason, it provides an interesting bookend to an impressive career, though a play not without its faults and limitations.
In the way that her popular hit Sisters Rosenzweig updated Chekhov’s Three Sisters to 1980s Manhattan, this play modernizes Lear into a New England university where a liberal product-of-the-sixties English instructor is challenged by a Midwestern white, middle-class male – the seeming antithesis of the professor’s “liberal” education. At the heart of the story is the instructor’s accusation that the boy plagiarized his essay on King Lear – a rather pertinent topic given the fact that Wasserstein herself is plagiarizing Shakespeare, who some consider the greatest plagiarer of all. The rest of the plot seems quite perfunctory unless one is a university professor, Shakespeare aficionado, or theatre critic who will enjoy comparing the plot and characters of Shakespeare’s tragedy to this one. The professor has two daughters both of whom represent Goneril and Cordelia while the student represents Regan, the good child. The instructor’s father also makes a brief appearance representing the end-of-act-III Lear as an old man afflicted with Alzheimer’s. A scene on a streetcorner in a rainstorm provides a pivotal moment that maybe lost on anyone who is not familiar with the original work.
Devotees of Ms. Wasserstein’s work will find bits of her uncanny dialogue and character creation, not the least of which is the character of Dr. Gordon. This character seems to solely encompass the wit, wisdom, and spunk for which Wasserstein is known. The fact that this character is battling cancer, the ailment that took Wasserstein’s life, makes her that much more powerful and appreciated. Wasserstein seemed to infuse this character alone with her signature wryness and style. You can see the playwright’s personality come through this character as she fights for her own life while pointing out the triviality in the plights of the characters around her. Perhaps Dr. Gordon was conceived as the fool from Lear who, despite his ignorance possesses great knowledge for the king. On the other hand, it is impossible to ignore that this character maybe Wasserstein herself putting into perspective the trivialities that she dramatized so well in other works.
Unfortunately, the play comes off a bit too pedantic and after-school-special to be considered one of Wasserstein’s magnum opuses. Fellow audience members around me couldn’t help but draw parallels to Mamet’s Oleanna and Rebecca Gilman’s acerbic Spinning into Butter, works that have tackled similar themes with far more combustible content. However, I find this work to be a requiem not just for Ms. Wasserstein’s life and ouvre, but for the era of psychologist-couch realism for which she was writing. Wasserstein provided a voice for the Baby Boom generation educated in the sixties and wrestling with the society they helped to create. In this work, Wasserstein seems to be passing the torch to the next generation with a bit of trepidation, but an acknowledgement that it is time to move on.