Rapture, Blister, Burn

Playwright Gina Gionfriddo puts feminism tenets on trial in this clever comedy

Amy Brenneman and Lee Tergesen in <i>Rapture, Blister, Burn</i>
Amy Brenneman and Lee Tergesen in Rapture, Blister, Burn
(© Michael Lamont)

The Geffen Playhouse brings Rapture, Blister, Burn intact from off-Broadway with its stellar original cast and the show is a treat — thought-provoking and funny. Recognizable TV stars Amy Brenneman, from Private Practice, and Lee Tergesen, from HBO’s Oz, may draw audiences to the theater but young Virginia Kull steals the show.

The play opens with palpable tension. Feminist scholar Catherine (Brenneman) visits her college roommate, Gwen (Kellie Overbey), and her husband, Don (Tergesen), for the first time in 20 years. Gwen and Don’s marriage has stalled and their attempt to save it by having a second child was a weak one. Catherine has an esteemed career, author of several books and a featured guest on TV talk shows such as Politically Incorrect, but finds her present life lonely. Catherine has returned home to care for her ailing but still spry mother (Beth Dixon) and relies on Don’s job as a college dean to keep herself occupied with work. Catherine’s class about the degradation of society stirs up anxieties for both the career woman and the homemaker since Gwen has enrolled in the class. The two evaluate their own missed opportunities.

According to Catherine’s teachings, feminist Betty Friedan revolutionized the movement by claiming women have a choice to be a homemaker or a career woman. The trouble with choices is that there is always a path not taken. Gina Gionfriddo explores that yearning for a different life. Though it can be didactic at times, the dialogue manages to explain theory while still conversational. The audience does not feel talked at but instead are members of a dynamic dinner conversation amongst colleagues. Once the characters take Friedan and her polar opposite, Phyllis Schafly, to heart, they question their own decisions and start experimenting. While these situations lend towards sitcom, director Peter DuBois has established a sense of each character and their longings so that their reactions are realistic and affecting.

Brenneman excels at grounded women losing a sense of control and Catherine is frantic as someone needing to reinvent her life. Overbey manages to be pushy and nitpicky but still lovable. Tergesen charmingly embodies the infantile adult, overly bright and lacking any ambition. Dixon, as Catherine’s mother, brings maternal love and martinis to the proceedings. Kull is introduced to the audience with a black eye and a snide wit, so it is shocking when her character emerges as the play’s mentor figure. As college delinquent Avery, she at first appears the most lost, but it is she who sticks a mirror in front of the other characters and forces them to confront the truth. A no-nonsense, wise-beyond-her-years sprite, Kull’s Avery is brutally honest and hilariously insightful.

Alexander Dodge’s clever set slides walls to make Catherine’s mother’s home and the married’s backyard. By using the same green shutter walls, the living spaces tie both families together as both peek on the other side to see if the grass is truly greener.

The title Rapture Blister Burn comes from a lyric in Courtney Love’s “Use Once And Destroy,” which correlates love with heroin addiction. As the play’s audience traces the mistakes, panics, and reconciliations of Brenneman’s protagonist, it is explicable why author Gionfriddo would tie love as an epic euphoria that crashes to dust. When Catherine ignores the independence she has built and deconstructs her life so she becomes an adjunct of others, not only catering to Don but giving up her livelihood to care for her mother, she has nowhere to go but down.

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Rapture, Blister, Burn

Closed: September 22, 2013