Jason Ritter, a third-generation actor in his third professional stage appearance, certainly is well cast in the title role of Wendy Wasserstein's new play at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. He's Third — the appellation of choice of one Woodson Bull III, a campus jock who collides with his literary prof (Dianne Wiest), sparking a controversy that upends both their lives. The play is Wiest's, Ritter quickly concedes — she also contends with an ailing dad (Charles Durning) and an estranged daughter (Gaby Hoffmann) — but there's a lot to be said for a catalyst, and he says it with the natural sympathy of an actor who's playing this role.
Third is from Ohio, you see — clearly a fish out of water at a very progressive liberal school on the East Coast, "but it's something he has chosen to do," says Ritter. "He's someone who believes in academic discussions, in dissent, and he doesn't feel he needs to agree with everything the teacher is saying." The teacher, however, is of another opinion.
When my character enters her perfect little bubble and is not fitting in — and, worse, has no problem with not fitting in — he starts to represent everything she hates about America. And, when she feels he's going to fit right in with the power elite, she goes after him."
Their conflict comes down to a single word — which she calls him — but Ritter prefers not to repeat it, if only to preserve the plot of the play. "People have asked me if it's comedy or drama. I say it's both. It is a drama, lightly written." Archetypal Wasserstein, in other words — and its director, Dan Sullivan, is an old, experienced hand at making this combo land comfortably on a stage. He directed Wasserstein's work to an Outer Critics Circle Award for The Sisters Rosensweig as well as to a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize for The Heidi Chronicles. Ritter's big professional thrust has been toward films. There've been seven so far. The most recent is "Happy Endings," in which his character — a closeted homosexual — is not far removed from Third. "A lot of the characters I respond to have been people who are out of their element to some degree. They're just trying to figure out who they are. I've met so many people who try to show they've got it together. I think, largely, that's not true."
Of late, he has operated in gangs of five. "Our Very Own" is about five kids growing up in the seventies in Tennessee, galvanized by the homecoming of a Shelbyville celebrity (you do remember Sondra Locke?). "Lenexa, 1 Mile" is about five kids growing up in the eighties in Kansas; when one dies, the others find out he's been keeping a dark secret from them.
His highest profile to date has been achieved on the small screen, via two seasons of "Joan of Arcadia," in which he was a high school athlete left paralyzed from the waist down by a booze-fueled car crash. From that position he managed to mine some surprising humor. But then humor is the family business — although his, he hastens to point out, is quite different (more laid back and character-driven) than what his dad dispensed on television.
Dad, of course, was John Ritter, a.k.a. Jack Tripper of "Three's Company." Three may be the family's lucky number, and following your father's act may be its curse. "It's what my dad ran into when people realized he didn't have the voice that my grandfather had."
Grandfather was Tex Ritter, who starred in Poverty Row shoot-'em-ups and memorably wailed "High Noon"'s "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'" to an Oscar; he also did Broadway, understudying Franchot Tone's Curly and lending rustic authenticity to Green Grow the Lilacs, the Lynn Riggs play that Rodgers and Hammerstein turned into Oklahoma!
John and Jason got here in 2000 — the former on Broadway in The Dinner Party by Neil Simon, the latter Off-Broadway in The Beginning of August by Tom Donaghy. They were the first father and son ever eligible for Theatre World Awards in the same season for their NYC stage bows. Dad won. "It was a huge deal for him to be on Broadway. That was a dream of his. And it was a great time for both of us, doing plays at the same time in New York. We would call each other after we had done our plays, and say 'Hey, wanna go get a bite to eat?' Sometimes, it would be Sardi's; sometimes a pasta place near his pad."
Ritter fils even has a film record of his debut in New York, courtesy of Lincoln Center Library — and viewed it recently, flaws and all. "I remember the night Lincoln Center filmed it, I was supposed to come out with a tray of lemonade. I dropped it, and it spilled all over the stage. And there it was. I got to relive that moment all over again."
Career-wise, he claims to have no game plan. "I'm just sorta feeling it out. It just is whatever has come to me, whatever I've responded to." He does admit to a slight aversion to Sitcomland, where his father was such a dominant figure. "I think that's why I've never even done a guest shot on a sitcom. I go into a room and sense the expectation from casting directors to do my dad, and it makes me so nervous that I invariably choke."
A complex like that could drive a guy into a distinguished life in the theatre; there, his descendants have touched down lightly only once, and already — counting a London run of Neil LaBute's The Distance From Here for director David Leveaux — Third is up to three.