TheaterWorks in Hartford, CT is currently offering an altogether splendid production of Wendy Wasserstein’s final play, “Third.” The title of the play actually refers to one of the main characters, Woodson Bull, III (played by Conor M. Hamill, in a star-making performance): he prefers to be called “Third,” as a nickname. A good-looking, muscular wrestler at a prestigious college, he butts heads (to put it mildly) with aloof, tenured professor Laurie Jameson, flawlessly portrayed by Kate Levy.

The crux of the play is in their strained relationship (and the fallout of it), but “Third” also brings up the danger of making assumptions about people, just based on first appearances. Just about all the characters in the play prove to be much more multidimensional than they at first seem. It is one of the beauties of Wendy Wasserstein’s writing that she is constantly examining and reexamining the people in her play, to really try to get to their core. Under the terrific direction of Rob Ruggiero, “Third” is a challenging and enjoyable work that is also consistently surprising and it has been given a luxurious production at TheaterWorks.

Amongst other assets, “Third” is a great looking show, with a stylish set designed by Michael Schweikardt (including a turn table onstage that is employed to make ultra-smooth scene changes). It is worth commenting on how attractive the production appears right from the start, because “Third” has everything to do with first impressions. The opening scene shows college professor Laurie Jameson assigning her class to write an in depth paper about “King Lear.” Into Laurie’s life comes Woodson Bull, III, a handsome college student on the wrestling team, who does not resemble at all the other students in her class.

It is not giving anything away to say that the two characters reach a battle when Woodson hands in an exceptional essay on “King Lear” and Laurie Jameson accuses him of plagiarism, because she cannot imagine how a wrestling student could possibly have written such an outstanding paper. It is the aftermath of her accusations to the school’s Committee of Academic Standards that makes up the majority of the story in the play.

But Wendy Wasserstein is not looking for easy answers and “Third” also features a trio of other characters, equally as complicated as the two leads. There is the lovely Olivia Hoffman, as Laurie’s somewhat rebellious daughter Emily, who tries to push her mother toward a more open way of thinking. Edmond Genest skillfully plays Laurie’s father, Jack, who suffers from extreme dementia and is a constant source of worry for Laurie. Finally, there is the refreshing Andrea Gallo, as Laurie’s optimistic friend and fellow professor. Each of these characters helps alter the course of the play, pushing “Third” in unexpected directions.

Still, it is ultimately the two leads who prove to be the most surprising. Kate Levy is just brilliant as the conflicted and uppity professor and the playwright has given her quite a juicy part to play. Though it admittedly seems a bit strange that this one wrestling student would rattle this character’s nerves so much, it is her confrontation with him that promises to possibly open Laurie up to a new way of thinking.

As Woodson Bull, III, Conor M. Hamill proves to a revelation. Having seen him play small parts in such shows as “Memphis” and “La Cage aux Folles,” I was not prepared for the outstanding work he does in “Third.” This actor is young and extremely handsome, and it is actually these very qualities that seem to torment and hinder this character the most, and one can almost see him fighting to break out of what people see about him on the surface.

Fittingly, it is Wendy Wasserstein’s intention in “Third” to dig deep beneath first impressions and to reveal how people are much more than they seem. Director Rob Ruggiero is in perfect accordance with the playwright and his excellent production and incisive work with his actors helps make “Third” such a stimulating experience. By all means, go to see “Third” at TheaterWorks, to see such an eye-opening, compassionate and also highly entertaining play, filled with terrific performances.

“Third” continues performances at TheaterWorks in Hartford, CT through November 8, 2015. For tickets, please visit www.theaterworkshartford.org or call the box office at 860-527-7838.

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