Deep Dish Theater
Through Nov. 15

Wendy Wasserstein’s last play, Third, now running at Chapel Hill’s Deep Dish Theater, will not go down in history as one of the early 21st century’s greatest. It is too much like a TV sitcom: a little heavy-handed, a little sentimental. Its topicality is not going to wear particularly well. However, for the moment it is still fresh enoughand it is really fun to sit in a college town and watch the worst of the academic world be skewered on stage.

The story revolves around Laurie Jameson, an English professor at a prestigious New England college, and a closed-minded snob. She is an academic star, famous in her tiny world for her deconstructionist, “feminist” lit-crit theorizing, and for busting the gender barrier in her career by becoming a full professor at this formerly all-male school. Her worldview was formed in the late 1960s and has not been updated since. In the Deep Dish production, this is beautifully conveyed by Adam Sampieri’s sound design, which incorporates many of the most memorable songs of that time; the college milieu is cleverly realized in Paul Stiller’s sets, augmented with Jen Bauer’s digital imagery projections.

But Jameson’s world is about to get all shook up. The play opens with her holding forth in the classroom about her preposterous reading of King Lear, in which she casts Regan and Goneril as victims and rails against the “girlification” of good daughter Cordelia. Kerry Shear, as Professor Jameson, gets just the right supercilious tone, and catches both the slovenly dignity and arrogant vanity of this fashionable but aging academic. When approached after class by Woodson Bull IIIthe Third of the play’s titleall her prejudices flare into hostility against this inoffensive and polite young man, deftly limned by Jake Bowden (himself a student at Elon).

When Woodson presents Jameson with an eloquent paper on Lear that takes a well-argued position contrary to her own, she accuses him of plagiarism and hauls him before the Academic Council. He’s exonerated, but he loses his athletic scholarship and his happy openness to new ideas. The incident fractures Jameson’s close friendship with her fellow professor, cancer-plagued Nancy Gordon (Linda Belans, with sharp wit and sharp tongue), and her relationship with her daughter, Emily (Jocelyn Roux). In addition, Jameson is contending with hot flashes and the rapid mental deterioration of her father, whose exasperating mental lapses are endearingly played by Bob Barr. With his death, the grief of good daughter Laurie overthrows the position of militant professor Jameson, forcing her to painful self-assessments and allowing reconciliation and renewal all aroundpretty much as expected and right on schedule at the end of the second act.

That there is little fresh or unexpected in a story does not negate its pleasure. There aren’t that many plots, after all. While it is too bad that Wasserstein keeps the emotion in this one at a superficial level, director Hope Hynes Love has staged it with a warmness that engages our empathy for the travails of these characters. On opening night, the performances were a little jerky and the pace lagged, but the actors, even while exemplifying types, gave us one of the things we want most in the theater: a mirror of humanity, with its diffident hope, unwarranted confidence and defenseless love. I would prefer the characters’ woe and joy to both be more strongly felt overall, but there are occasional deep pools of feeling; these, together with some punchy lines and a few lashings of satiric cynicism, make up for the script’s episodic flatness.