Theatrical Impression: THIRD at ArtsWest

I knew little about THIRD and playwright Wendy Wasserstein as I headed to ArtsWest last Thursday. As a student who attended a midwest liberal arts university, I knew the basics: Crimes of the Heart (managed to conflate Acting II scene studies and misremembered which plays we did), Wendy Wasserstein is an important female American playwright… and that’s about it. The reason I wanted to go came down to the director, Peggy Gannon. What I ended up seeing was a decent evening of theatre that left me with amazing feelings about Peggy’s ability to rise to the space’s staging challenges, Marty Mukhalian is UH-MAZING, and meh about Wendy Wasserstein.
Bill Higham and Marty Mukhalian. I teared up. Photo by Michael Brunk / nwlens.com
Bill Higham and Marty Mukhalian. I teared up. Photo by Michael Brunk / nwlens.com

I get why audiences like Wasserstein plays. All of the jokes and commentary are on point: a clothing-optional dormitory, asking Third if he’s a Republican again and again, the bitter sweetness of a man’s mind as it deteriorates, and the political-university climate of the US in 2003. But it didn’t leave me feeling good, I felt empty. I wanted more. I wanted to dig deeper into the deteriorating father and his relationship with his daughter, the professor. I wanted to know more about the professor’s tense yet loving and adoring relationship with her own daughter. The family interested me the most, but it was the secondary story. But that’s not what the play was about, because it’s about the professor’s unfounded rampage on a student she barely knows. I got bored with Third, the catalyst, mostly because he never changed. He’s not supposed to. He was onstage to create an opportunity for the professor to change. Every time he came onstage he repeated a similar sentiment to the point where I equally dreaded his final scene and highly anticipated it because I knew the professor would give me much-needed closure. 

My seats in the house could have greatly contributed to my simultaneous feelings of satisfaction and emptiness. ArtsWest has a semi-thrust arrangement, with seats directly on the sides of the stage. I ended up house right, staring directly at the side of the set and characters. Peggy’s staging was impressive for the challenges she had from the set and the semi-thrust arrangement. (The set could have been pushed upstage about two feet to give the side houses a chance to see at an angle.) I rarely felt left out of a scene, except at the very end, and then only for a moment. The actors excelled at making sure everyone felt included. But how much of the story was lost to me because I wasn’t seeing it dead on? Looking at the press photos, everything looks unfamiliar because I didn’t see the play that way, I saw everything from the side. I think that would certainly encourage a feeling of being “left out.” Did my house right seat enable me as a “bystander” instead of an “engaged audience member?”  THIRD is such a realistic play–despite direct audience addresses and one surreal moment–that maybe it needs to be performed in a straight-on proscenium style stage.

Regardless, I stepped away from THIRD happy that I had had the opportunity to see Peggy’s work again, blessed to have been in Marty Mukhalian’s presence, and aware that a Wendy Wasserstein play is not my personal aesthetic.

THIRD plays through March 22 at ArtsWest in West Seattle.

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