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Third (Actors Workout Studio)

The late playwright, Wendy Wasserstein (1950-2006), wrote lovely plays about contemporary women and their struggles to find meaningful roles to fill, mostly taken from her own life. Dead now for a decade, she is produced enough to have us develop a strong opinion on her viability as a playwright and screenwriter, and “Third,” her final play, proves that she had a vital finger on the pulse of contemporary women and men.

Written the year before her death, this dramedy about academicians v. the rest of us was a critical but not commercial success. This production adds to her reputation as a chronicler of women in academia.

Set in an unnamed private liberal arts college in New England (possibly based on her teaching years at Cornell). Dr. Laurie Jameson (Delores Aguanno), a feisty, intelligent instructor, runs into what she feels is a serious academic problem with a young and handsome student in one of her classes, Woodson Bull III (nicknamed “Third”), played by Drew Hellenthal. Because the two clash over philosophical and political issues, Dr. Jameson becomes blinded to his reality, due to what she perceives as flippant, jockish attitudes on his part, so she pulls his term paper on Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” thinking unclearly that this self-contained young man couldn’t possibly have thought up the newer ideas on the relationship between Lear and his three daughters on his own; that, ipso facto, he must have plagiarized his paper off the Internet.

Not true, apparently, but she turns him over to an Academic Panel, which causes Third to lose his scholarship, even after he’s cleared by them, forcing him to transfer to Ohio State University.

Wasserstein clearly modeled the character of Dr. Jameson – a major irritating person due to her faulty intellectual reasoning based on identity politics – on herself, as well as another key character, Professor Nancy Gordon (Irene Muzzy), who is suffering from cancer (which was what killed Wasserstein).

Director Robert Cicchini, working in an uncomfortable 40-seat house, has done yeoman’s work in creating a reality for his production, with a viable set and lighting design, and a cast of actors who mostly carry the play’s message to fruition. Hellenthal gives us a credible youth, finding his rational and emotional footing, while losing ground with his teacher’s accusations; Stephen Mendillo as Professor Jameson’s father, Jack, failing in memory; Taylor Solomon as a pretty classmate, and, especially Muzzy with her sorrowful reality of fighting a deadly disease, all of whom create solid characterizations, which inform Wasserstein’s play. The only problem was with Aguanno as the lead professor. While she hit her “notes,” they weren’t deep enough, throwing the rhythms off. An actor with some history behind her, she just didn’t complete the journey for us. Pity that, as she is clearly trained to her craft.

“Third” works well enough that you couldn’t go wrong putting it into a repertory with A.R. Gurney’s 1988 academic drama, “Another Antigone,” a defense  of academic freedoms, quite the opposite of Wasserstein’s concerns of damnable arrogance connected to indulgent academicians and unaware students.

Obviously, any time we have access to quality plays, they must be supported. For all the minor faults of the production, the play maintains its strengths and is worth noting.

Third” plays through March 6th at the Actor’s Workout Studio, 4735 Lankershim Blvd, North Hollywood, 91602. Tickets:  818.506.3903