Friday, February 26, 2016

Third by Wendy Wasserstein

L. Dolores Aguanno and Irene Muzzy - Photos:  dee-Lightful

By Joe Straw

It is tough being “famous” – ask any college professor. – Narrator

At first glance, her seams were slightly weathered; the glasses were a dead giveaway that life was catching her. Overall, she was tailored and kept, and one would think, looking at this woman, that she had all her ducks in a row.

But Laurie Jameson (Dolores Aguanno), a famous professor at a liberal New England college, is unaware that her life is slowly falling apart at the seams. 

In this quiet New England town, she toddles about the campus in an independent fashion, a self-assured woman who is most certainly aware of life around her and is able to appreciate life’s peculiarities. And in her whole life, she is not shy about taking control of every situation for a cause, her cause.

Laurie was as “famous” as they come, a “superstar” in her ranks, and academia never had it so good.

But life has a way of presenting problems.  And they come to this professor, in small increments, languorous, and in the very quiet, bewildering moments. 

In her reality, conflict is a moment waiting for that unexpected jolt.

Actors Workout Studio and dee-Lightful Productions present Third by Wendy Wasserstein directed by Robert Cicchini and Produced by Dolores Aguanno/dee-Lightful Productions, and Fran Montano/Actors Workout Studio through March 6th, 2016 at The Actors Workout Studio in North Hollywood.  

Third by Wendy Wasserstein is an extremely satisfying night of theatre with exceptional performances.  Wasserstein brings a satisfying comedic truth to strong women who are in various stages of physical and emotional disarray.

Cicchini, the director, skillfully directs the five-member ensemble, hitting some very high marks with the actors and their poignant interactions.  And all of this makes for a great night of adult comedy.    

On this first day of new academic year, Laurie starts with a lecture that she’s given many times before, the one about Shakespeare’s King Lear – not thinking that there will be any cause for concern so early in the term.

But, at the end of her lecture, something disrupts her social order. 

Woodson Bull the Third (Drew Hellenthal) approaches Professor Laurie Jameson.  He is a nice looking student, collectively wise, and comes with a pedigree.    Third is a wrestler on scholarship, a recent graduate of Groton,(*) and he has a small favor to ask.

(*Groton is a private school for those who can afford $56,000 per year – not including books.)  

“How, can I help you, Mr…?” – Laurie

“Bull.  Woodson Bull.” – Third

“You’re kidding!” – Laurie

“No, ma’am.” – Third

“You don’t have to call me ma’am, Mr. Bull.  This isn’t The Citadel.” – Laurie

“I know that, ma’am.”  - Third

Ouch! This is the moment when one wants to get things off on the right foot, but doesn’t.  These two clash at the first outing. And as the imaginative dark clouds start moving in, we learn that Third’s father and grandfather went to this very same college back when it was a “men’s college”.

The way he said it, “men’s college”.

And although it is very subtle action, a ridged wall raises.  It is slightly imperceptible at first glance, but there is a separation.  Laurie’s shoulders are squared, and her head tilts slightly as she recognizes the sound of the unmistakable tone of “white privilege”.

Be that as it may, Third can’t make the required film screening of Dr. Jonathan Miller’s production of King Lear because of a wrestling match obligation.  But Laurie is not cutting anyone any slack – if he misses the screening, he will suffer the consequences.

“I am not going to play ‘in loco parentis’ with you.” – Laurie

It is rather pretentious action for this former Oxford Fulbright scholar who has no plans of being a nurturing parent to any of her students, and in particular, this one.

A few weeks later in Laurie’s home, George W. Bush is speaking to the United Nations on television, and Laurie, listening intently, understands that every unfortunate word spoken, provokes action, from speech, to step, to marching boot, the country is going off to war yet again.  And she is not happy about it.

That’s when Emily (Taylor Solomon) enters and sees her mother screaming at the TV. She decides to take action and turn it off.

Even after calming down a bit, Laurie doesn’t understand why her youngest daughter isn’t out there protesting the war.  But Emily can only be cynical about the war, cynical about her lesbian sister Zooey (not seen), and cynical about Zooey’s partner Rena (also not seen). By Emily’s notion, Zooey and Rena are also not fighting the war by making organic cheese in Vermont.

“It’s not Zooey I have a problem with.  It’s her girlfriend Rena.” – Emily

“How could you have a problem with Rena?  She’s a Guggenheim poet.” –Laurie

“Mother, there’s more to life than prizes.” - Emily

There is a subtle point made here.

Naytheless, Emily comes home, after six weeks away at college, and finds that her upstairs bedroom is now her father’s noisy gym. Grousing about that tidbit of information Emily lets loose that she is romantically involved with a college dropout, from the less than prestigious Trenton State. 

Perturbed by the noise upstairs, Emily’s grandfather Jack (Christopher Pennock) wakes from his nap.  He cringes at the sound of one more noise in his head disrupting his mental faculties.  But notes that he tries very hard to keep focus by recognizing his surroundings and counting backwards, with little success.

And, later, to top everything else off, Laurie’s best friend and colleague, Nancy (Irene Muzzy), is fighting a reoccurring bout with cancer. Laurie wants to take up the fight right along side of her.

 “You are my best friend here.  Your doctor told me you had difficult choices to make.” – Laurie

“What?” – Nancy

“I hope you don’t mind, but I called your doctor the other day.  I told him I was very concern.” – Laurie

Nancy, taken aback, says, “I deserve the privilege of my privacy.”

Suddenly, in their discomforting intimacy, they are interrupted by Third, and a substantial private moment between the two vanishes into thin air.  Nancy, leaves in a slight wisp of light, and without a resolution. And Third’s timing, and his privileged antics annoy Laurie.

Laurie is at the crossroads of her life.  Not completely understanding her inscrutable intentions, she needs help and seeks the advice of her mute Freudian analyst (not seen).  Overall she is losing unwinnable battles, and having hot flashes, which is not helping her.  

Weeks later, after grading Third’s paper on King Lear, Laurie does not believe that he wrote the paper. She accuses Third of plagiarism and tells him that she will bring him up on academic charges.

There is a tremendous amount of light in Cicchini’s direction. His genius of having Laurie prance about the board meeting with flashing lights was a complete joy to watch and totally unexpected.
And while most things in Cicchini’s direction worked, some things needed additional attention. In a play such as this, momentum is important and the interminable scene changes alters the momentum of the play.  A college is always in a constant state of flux and perhaps there is an imaginative way of dressing the set while the action is taking place on stage.  (The Set Design was credited as “A collaboration”.)

Dolores Aguanno does an admirable job as Laurie Jameson, a professor with a very strong will. More work needs to be done in the second scene when she is speaking with her daughter but for the most part the acting is solid.  The scene with the analyst, and the time Aguanno took to get a reaction from her, was especially strong.  No, it was perfection.

L. Taylor Solomon, Drew Hellenthal

Drew Hellenthal is Woodson Bull, the Third. He is a very interesting character, a freshman, and a product from a very good private school.   He is an athlete on a wrestling scholarship; he is also smart although at times not very articulate.  Hellenthal, while very appealing on stage, doesn’t go far enough with the character.  There are many more layers to the character of a wrestler, the celerity of movement, of making weight (which wrestlers are always trying to do), and running to and from classes would more to add to the character. Also, the conflict between him and the professor is not entirely solid and should be clearly defined.

Taylor Solomon does a fine job as Emily Imbrie and adds a nice quirky quality to the character. One particularly likes the shorter haircut to the longer hair in the photos. The scene in the bar needs additional layers. Emily needs to somehow tie her connection to her mother to really get Third down on his knees in this scene.  A photograph perhaps?

Christopher Pennock presents a large majestic figure as Jack Jameson.  His final scene is poignant but one that must overtly convince his daughter into action and into the final scene. Still, some very nice work.

Irene Muzzy, as Professor Nancy Gordon, is exceptional as someone who battles cancer. Nancy, frazzled and worn, rides a different horse of complicity; of understanding the problem but letting the combatants work it out on their own terms. Very nice work!  

Other members of the cast that did not perform on this night are Allegra Williams (Emily Imbrie) and Stephen Mendillo (Jack Jameson).

Fran Montano welcomed me to his beautiful theatre in North Hollywood and we had a great time talking about my former teacher Michael Shurtleff.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Robert Cicchini – Sound Design
John Stirrat, Graydon Stroud, Sergiu Iva – Lighting Crew
John Stirrat – Light and Sound Board Operator
Elise Robertson – Set Consultant and Scenic Painter
John Stirrat, Graydon Stroud, Allegra – Set Crew
Graydon Stroud – Stage Manager
Graydon Stroud and The Actors – Backstage Crew
Laura Petersen – Program
Caitlin Michael Riley – Theater Administrator

Run! Run! Run! And take your favorite professor with you!

Reservations:  800-838-3006

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Actors Workout Studio
4735 Lankershim Blvd.
North Hollywood, CA  91602

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