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Eileen Dugan and Patrick Cameron in "Third" at the Kavinoky.

Wendy Wasserstein’s marvelously clever dialogue and compelling moral meanderings take center stage in this production of Third, a play about ethical dilemmas at a small New England College. Eileen Dugan gives a strong performance as a brilliant if stubborn feminist college professor who decides that a certain paper on King Lear is too good to have been written by a boy on a wrestling scholarship.

Directed by Peter Palmisano on a cold and sprawling set that probably seemed like a good idea on paper, when Third hugs the stage apron, this is an intimate and personal play about overcoming the mental obstacles we create for ourselves.

Dugan creates a character who manages to be both endearing and maddening in her obstinate intractability. Laurie juggles the demands of her career with the people in her personal life—the daughters through whom she lives vicariously, the husband from whom she has grown distant, the valued colleague who is experiencing the frightening return of cancer, and the beloved father who is slowly losing himself to dementia.

Wasserstein’s play artfully splinters Laurie Jameson’s life through the perspectives of these other characters, some of whom never appear on stage, in order to reveal important truths about self-perception and, inevitably, the human condition. This woman who smugly knows it all—even to the point of compulsively watching endlessly repetitious CNN broadcasts, lest the government slip one past her—ironically has a father who is losing even knowledge of himself and often does not recognize her. In so many ways, Laurie, too, does not know herself. She intrusively calls her friend’s doctor to inquire about her medical condition. She tries to micromanage the lives of her children and passes woeful judgment on her husband. None of this gives her ethical pause. She is so sure of herself that she confuses empty statements that begin with phrases like “Don’t you dare…” and “How dare you!” for meaningful defenses.

It takes a fresh-faced undergraduate named ‘Third,’ who writes a brilliant paper on Shakespeare to rock Laurie from her moorings.

Saul Elkin plays the father with sweet bewilderment. The performance is simultaneously affectionate and frightening as a result of the palpable vulnerability with which he imbues this man. Anne Roaldi is both flint and steel as Laurie’s strong-willed daughter, delivering intelligence and comedy in equal Wasserstein-esque doses. Colleen Gaughan gives a very fine performance as the colleague with cancer, a fascinating portrait of fortitude, wisdom, and compassion. Finally, Patrick Cameron is appealing and winning as young Third, the young man who unwittingly foists himself into the maelstrom of Professor Jameson’s insecurities, but manages to emerge a winner, nonetheless. Ultimately, of course, as is the way with a Wendy Wasserstein play, through her losses, Professor Jameson’s ends up a winner too.

This thought-provoking and uplifting play continues through February 6, at the Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Avenue (829-7668).

Also in this week's Theater Week: Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins, Gutenberg the Musical & [Title of Show], I Am a Man