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Feminism is put under the microscope in Wendy Wasserstein's 'Third'

When an ardently feminist college professor accuses a male student of plagiarism, she engages in prejudice of the grossest stripe, almost destroying a young life in the process.

"Third," Wendy Wasserstein's final play, at Actors Workout Studio, was produced just a few months before the Pulitzer-winning playwright's death at age 55. And although the work is larded with simplistic philosophical exchanges more appropriate to CliffsNotes than a mature dialectic, it is an enduring example of Wasserstein's deeply humanistic feminism -- a balanced perspective that sometimes sparked outrage among her more stringently ideological peers.

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A star in the female studies field, college professor Laurie Jameson (Dolores Aguanno) deplores the male power hierarchy. Her new student, the straight white male college wrestler Woodson Bull III, aka "Third" (engaging Drew Hellenthal), seems the embodiment of everything she deplores.

Unable to accept that Third has written a brilliant thesis on "King Lear" all by his lonesome, Laurie accuses him of cheating and drags him in front of the school ethics committee to prove her allegations. Ultimately and ironically, Laurie must confront that she has become as oppressive as the sexist males she has devoted a lifetime to fighting.

The cast includes Irene Muzzy as Laurie's desperately ill colleague and friend, whose support of Third is viewed by Laurie as the worst kind of betrayal. Taylor Solomon, alternating in the role with Allegra Williams, plays Laurie's daughter, Emily, who is driven to rebel against her mother's intellectual stringency. Stephen Mendillo, alternating with Christopher Pennock, plays Laurie's father, an appropriately Lear-like figure slipping into dementia.

Director Robert Cicchini turns in a thoughtful and mostly dynamic staging, but evident line lapses hamper his otherwise well-paced production. That's a shortcoming that doesn't detract from the pure pleasure of Wasserstein's swan song -- a clarion warning against ideological extremism that is particularly apropos now, when any blunder into political incorrectness, however unwitting, can engender viral and virulent outrage.

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"Third"

Where: Actors Workout Studio, 4735 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Also 8 p.m. Feb. 26. Ends March 6. Dark Feb. 28.

Tickets: $20

Info: (800) 838-3006, third.brownpapertickets.com

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

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Follow The Times' arts team @culturemonster.

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