For being billed as "a hilarious new comedy," Heiress Production's play Thirds by Jacob M. Appel and adapted by Kevin Brewer misses the mark, but it still provides an entertaining night at Theatre Row's Lion Theatre (now through March 18). Though there's nothing "new" about sisters that follow all of the stereotypes about oldest, middle, and youngest children, the play's fourth character is certainly one-of-a-kind. Despite these few stock characters, Thirds has surprisingly touching moments and not just simple laughs, perhaps due to the subject matter: it follows three sisters as they attempt to move on after their mother's death and divide the estate.
We start with, of course, the oldest and youngest sisters physically and verbally sparring, though not over a toy, the phone or the bathroom, but a brick. In an effort to retain her third of the house, youngest sister Maya (Kelly Strandemo) has started to build a brick wall in the living room (a once-trendy suburban design by John Zangen). This makes oldest sister, Delilah (Leigh Williams) outraged because she wants to move into the house so her daughters can attend the local schools. In comes the mediating middle sister Olivia (Laura Faith), who tries to make peace but finds no luck. It seems as though these three have been this way their entire lives, and the action goes on this way for nearly the whole first act: Maya and Delilah at odds and Olivia chirping in here and there.
Initially, the bantering is quite funny but it eventually settles and turns stale. The most comedic of the three sisters is Maya, a directionless artist whose imagination runs wild with elaborate daydreams. Strandemo bursts out in wide-eyed, large-gestured dramatics that make you chuckle (just wait until you hear about "baby sister Cordelia" and the baboon) because she reminds you of every attention-seeking baby of the family. Williams' role as typical oldest sister Delilah is not as easily designed for comedy, so she mostly plays straight man to Strandemo's antics, though her biting sarcasm adds a nice touch. Finally, Faith delicately plays nervous librarian Olivia, whose little interjections during the Maya/Delilah scuffles give the trio a unique comedic scenario, but it is used so frequently that it becomes diluted and then ineffective.
Thankfully, in the last minute of the first act we are introduced to the fourth character, childhood neighbor Phyllis, who comes looking to buy the house. The sisters all remember Phyllis (Jenna Panther) as a bit strange but she turns out to be beyond that. Panther balances between cartoonish and quirky and, in doing so, presents a surprisingly multilayered character still struggling to overcome a suffocating childhood and fit in. Her crazed performance art version of Walt Whitman's "A Noiseless Patient Spider" is something to behold and the audience loves all of Phyllis's oddities. With Phyllis in the mix, the sisters not only have strong reactions with each other but also this newcomer, and you wish that the play didn't take so long to get to this point. Perhaps some judicious cuts in the first act could make this a more solid and powerful one-act show.
Furthermore, Phyllis's entrance into the house not only heightens the comedy but also the drama. In the first act, the sisters bond over their mother's cherished letters and memories from their childhood. These touching moments bring unexpected sincerity to a show only claiming to be a comedy and elevates Thirds to a play with more serious undertones. I wish they would have experimented, fleshed out these scenes and made a truly dynamic play which would have allowed for better character development for the three sisters. Perhaps, then, the once-stereotypical sisters would add up to more than just the sum of their parts.
Photo credit: Katherine Miles Jones