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Writing for Us

A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

I've sort of had it with smart people.— Emily
It's typical of late playwright Wendy Wasserstein to express her theme of reverse discrimination in the succinct line quoted above. Laurie (Christine Lahti), a famous professor at a prestigious Ivy League college, worships brainpower and has very specific ideas about who qualifies for it. Definitely unqualified is her new student athlete Woodson Bull III (Matt Czuchry), who puts wrestling on a par with King Lear.

The playwright poses some wonderful theories about Shakespeare's masterpiece. Laurie contends it's Regan and Goneril's story; Third, as he's called, posits a Freudian theory for Lear's treatment of Cordelia. His submission of a brilliant thesis paper on the play is not acceptable to Laurie because she refuses to believe he could have written it and convenes an academic committee to review it.

Laurie is neither a likeable nor believable character. Her function is to personify academic snobbism and Third is right to suspect there's something more going on here. Whether because she's sexually attracted (her guess as to his motive) or because he's happy (his guess as to her motive), neither sex nor happiness results from this shrill tirade.

The second act works better than the first. It offers interesting relationships between Laurie and her younger daughter Emily (Sarah Drew), a Swarthmore student who outrages her mother, perhaps deliberately, by moving in with a bank teller. He has nothing her mother can name drop about and Emily admits she doesn't want to be anything like Mom. Dad, a Poly Sci professor at the same college, never lived up to his early promise and Emily declares Laurie resents him because she has nothing to brag about at parties. He never appears on stage and has found a new group of motorcycle friends. Tunnel vision on her drained marriage is a parallel example of Laurie's narrow-mindedness.

Laurie has only one friend that we know of , Nancy (Jayne Brook)another professor who has cancer. Like Emily, Nancy tries to balance Laurie's bigoted attack on Third and his paper. Laurie's dad Jack (M. Emmet Walsh), who has Alzheimer's, provides both humor, someone she can love who is not intellectual and a look at a concerned side of Laurie, as she pursues her wandering Dad on his mindless rambles. She is also going through menopause and it's unnerving to suspect that this is used as a reason for her bitchy attack on Third. It undercuts what seemed to be the author's theme, that liberals can be just as fixed in their world views as conservatives.

The pain Laurie causes to this boy and his family is not minimized. She's lucky that she isn't sued. The farewell scene between the two, who both are going on to new lives, doesn't make us like her any better.

There are, however, solid pleasures in this play, apart from Wasserstein's unbeatable understated way with an epigram. The relationships of her women are perceptively layered. Laurie struggles to let go of her youngest child and the concern for Nancy that prompts infuriating calls to herdoctor for progress reports are scenes that emphasize a brilliant teacher's conviction that she knows what's right for everybody and humanize this prickly character.

Under Maria Mileaf's direction, Christine Lahti makes Laurie high-strung, nervy, and strong with the courage of convictions that have never been tested. Matt Czuzhry's initial exuberance and big-arm gestures seem a little over the top but he grows into his performance and by the end, having taken Nancy's advice to just show up and get through it, his body language is pulled in and purposeful. Jayne Brook is shrewd and determined, holding her own with Laurie, facing the possibility of death with the same stoicism she recommends to Matt. Sarah Drew plays Emily as very much her mother's daughter, with an equally powerful determination to go her own way, whatever it is. M. Emmet Walsh is a powerful blast of life, blazing with knowing what he knows, dancing on the brink of extinction.

For a review of Third in New York go here.

Playwright: Wendy Wasserstein
Director: Maria Mileaf
Cast: Christine Lahti (Laurie), Marr Czuchry (Third), Jayne Brook (Nancy), Sarah Drew (Emily), M. Emmet Walsh (Jack)
Scenic Designer: Vince Mountain
Lighting Design: David Lander
Costume Designer: Alex Jaeger
Composer: Michael Roth
Running Time: 110 minutes, one intermission
Running Dates: September 19-October 28, 2007.
Where: The Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, Reservations: (213) 365-3500.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on September 19.


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