Last weekend Globe critic Louise Kennedy offered a rare essay in the Sunday arts pages, on a topic that I daresay she thought was daring: the true artistic stature of Wendy Wasserstein, the Mount Holyoke grad and beloved playwright who produced a long list of comedy-dramas centered on uncommon women and others (to borrow one of her own early titles). Wasserstein, of course, passed away two years ago, at just 55, and just after completing Third (starring Maureen Anderman, at left), currently on the boards of the Huntington (which had a longstanding "relationship" with the author's work). So perhaps it's time (or almost time) for a re-assessment of her output, now that plays centered on smart, engaging, educated women are no longer exciting simply because they're new.
And certainly Wasserstein's oeuvre is open to some obvious criticism. Kennedy's not the first to point out that its focus on a certain milieu (that of the articulate, career-oriented, educated Jewish woman) can easily be seen as a limit, not a strength, and Wasserstein's talent for, and comfort with, light comic dialogue meant her plays usually shrank from any kind of raw conflict. But the first thing that strikes one about Kennedy's critique is that with Third, Wasserstein essentially beat her to it.
For the opening scenes of Third cleanly lay out a précis of, well, What's Wrong With Wendy Wasserstein, or at least the women she writes about. As the curtain rises, Laurie Jameson, a professorial star at some unnamed blend of Smith and Mt. Holyoke, is holding forth on King Lear with a decidedly post-feminist spin - it's actually the tragedy of bad girls Regan and Goneril, Jameson insists, and Cordelia is the play's villain because she submits to her own "girlification." These wittily counterintuitive claims map amusingly to the first scene of Lear, it's true - but we wonder how, exactly, Professor Jameson expects to hang onto them once Regan and Goneril start poking out people's eyes and poisoning each other. And we imagine our factotum in this debate is going to be the eponymous "Third," or rather Woodson Bull III, a young, handsome, heterosexual wrestler who seems to have wandered into her seminar by mistake. Or at least Jameson imagines it must be a mistake - with his WASP-porn-star name and his preppie sports scholarship, she seems to see Third as an avatar for all the bull she and her sisters have taken from the white male establishment since they arrived on campus.
And so far, so good - an over-reaching feminist, a "living dead white male" with a jones for King Lear, and an archly, accurately treated milieu - it seems that Wasserstein is setting us (and herself) up for the kind of Shavian critique rarely seen in the theatre anymore. Throw in a subplot with Jameson's aging, Alzheimer's-ridden father (with whom she's playing the role of Cordelia, of course, not Regan or Goneril), and we likewise hope for a niftily rendered rapprochement between life and its duties and the limits of gender-based theory.
But then Wasserstein doesn't deliver on any of these counts. She's never been long on plot, true, but this time she even comes up short on substance. Third's thesis on Lear, it turns out, though insightful and provocative, fits quite well within Jameson's theories, whatever she may say; yet she's moved to call him up on plagiarism charges, apparently simply as vengeance for being smarter than he looks. We're willing to buy even this clumsy plot hook, of course, if it leads to an excitingly barbed exchange of ideas - but Wasserstein dodges this challenge as well: Third offers his defense of his paper in dumb-show, while Laurie yammers on (via internal monologue) about her hot flashes (which is roughly, we feel, what Rush Limbaugh or his ilk might suggest at this point). The play grinds on, with a slow come-uppance for Jameson, but sans any intellectual content other than the usual exhortations to 'live life to the fullest' and 'see people for what they are.' It's as if Wasserstein set out a road map for expanding the limits of her drama, but then refused to follow it. I suppose you could argue the playwright's overarching point is that the culture wars shrink in significance as one enters the last - yes- third of one's life. Perhaps the play is her mea culpa before the great beyond. (And she includes her own factotum, via a faculty member struggling with cancer, to underline this point.) But couldn't she have done this while giving both sides more compelling ammunition?
Maureen Anderman and Graham Hamilton begin to wrestle in Third.
Still, what's left of Third is often charming, and occasionally even moving. The Huntington has mounted a handsomely crafted, well-acted production (in its last weekend), with Maureen Anderman capturing just about every facet of Jameson's many contradictions, while being backed up skillfully by Robin Pearson Rose as the no-nonsense professor facing her last semester, and Halley Feiffer as Jameson's klutzily sincere daughter (not to mention Jonathan McMurtry as that mercurial Lear stand-in). In the central role of Third, however, Graham Hamilton is equally accomplished, but perhaps slightly miscast - if he had more slick, senior-class-president mojo, we might buy Jameson's reaction to him. As it is, we're too far ahead of the play's curve: we know from the start he's no scion but merely a nice, middle-class boy on the make, and that the entire play, therefore, is a kind of illusion.
But then what to make of Kennedy's critique? Does she, in a sense, get further than Wasserstein herself in her analysis of the playwright's oeuvre? I'm afraid I'd have to argue no. The trouble with Third, in a word, is that Wasserstein could tell she was imprisoned in her identity politics, but had no idea how to transcend them. She can't really imagine a scion with the smarts to competently oppose Jameson's ideas - in fact, she can't even conjure a scion who might hold onto our sympathy (so Third winds up being from the suburbs). Wasserstein may be attempting to stage a debate, but she can't begin to lay out the opposing brief.
And Kennedy makes precisely the same mistake. She seems aware of Wasserstein's structural limits ("for women who talk so much about all the things that women have to do, her characters don't do very much onstage"), but her argument eventually devolves to this position:
"[The plays] do have a lot to say about one kind of woman today: an educated, financially comfortable, liberal, now middle-aged woman who's trying to figure out how to get as much as she possibly can out of life . . . as for the generation of women, now in their 20s and 30s, who are younger than both Wasserstein and me, it's hard to imagine that these plays address their concerns and questions in ways that really speak to them."
In other words, she's not irritated with Wasserstein for being trapped in her identity politics; she instead wants her to write about other identity politics. Wasserstein's fundamental flaw is not her inability to imagine the inner life of Third, but instead the fact that she writes about her own generation of women, not the next.
I have to say I find this somewhat depressing. We in fact do not need a younger version of Wendy Wasserstein (even though I admit I find her appealing). Nor do we need critics who want to see plays about themselves or their children (which seems to be Kennedy's only-partially-obscured demand). What we need are playwrights, and plays, that can frame both sides of the debate, that can actually imagine "the other" (to borrow a certain loaded term from the academy). And somehow I don't see Sarah Ruhl or Suzan-Lori Parks filling that bill. I guess we're all still waiting for Shakespeare's sister to be born.