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New York Theater

Third

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Snappy, amusing dialogue and passionate beliefs inform Wendy Wasserstein's Third, at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. At times the play feels shoehorned into expressing Ideas and Attitudes, anxiously pursuing issues, its events happening rather than developing. But then Wasserstein's sparkle returns.

The protagonist is Laurie Jameson, a revered, menopausal English professor at a small, progressive New England college. Putting a feminist spin on King Lear (Cordelia is a "masochistic simp," Goneril and Regan are "girls with guts"), she clashes with Woodson Bull III, a student who likes to be called Third and has written a paper refuting Jameson's opinions. Unwilling to see through to who he is as a person, believing him to be an empty-headed jock -- or worse, a red-state Republican -- she accuses him of plagiarism.

Other troubles plague the prof: Her best friend, Nancy, has cancer; her daughter Emily talks of dropping out of college to live with her bank-teller boyfriend; her husband is going through a midlife crisis; and her dad has Alzheimer's. On a political level, a "regressive climate" is taking the country into the Iraq War. (Act I is set in 2002, Act II in 2003.)

That's a lot of malaise to handle, both for Wasserstein and the prof, who has traded cynicism for idealism and whose "thinking is all over the place." Yet though Third skimps on emotional engagement, its repartee is bright and it nails liberal self-righteousness.

Under Daniel Sullivan's meticulous direction, Dianne Wiest as Jameson weaves an intricate portrait of a woman both self-satisfied and repressed. As her father, Charles Durning is pitiable yet noble, while Amy Aquino is spunky as Nancy and Gaby Hoffmann is a no-nonsense Emily.

But it's Jason Ritter as Third who gives the evening's most complex performance. Gangly yet self-confident, superficially charming yet intellectually sincere, Ritter creates a character somewhere between smart and smart-ass, neatly embodying the work's dichotomies.

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