Rapture, Blister, Burn

Gina Gionfriddo’s examination of contemporary feminism is full of witty lines that mask the play’s seminar-like feeling.

Amy Brenneman and Virginia Kull
in Rapture, Blister, Burn
(© Carol Rosegg)
Amy Brenneman and Virginia Kull
in Rapture, Blister, Burn
(© Carol Rosegg)

Because Gina Gionfriddo fires off witty line after outright belly-laugh after witty line throughout
Rapture, Blister, Burn, now at Playwrights Horizons — and because she’s aided in her task by a fine cast under the direction of Peter DuBois — her examination of contemporary feminist attitudes becomes a more entertaining piece of work than her awkward issue-oriented plotting should allow.

As Jeff Croiter’s lights go up on Alexander Dodge’s weathered-shingles set, we find brainy, uncomfortably single, 42-year-old author Catherine (Amy
Brenneman) back in her small New England home town and visiting one-time boyfriend Don Harper (Lee Tergesen), now a college dean, and irritable wife Gwen (Kellie Overbey), who some would say stole Don from Catherine when they were all young adults in graduate school.

It soon becomes apparent the three are feeling ambivalent about a planned evening out — a situation that becomes even more edgy after Gwen fires Avery (Virginia Kull) — one of Don’s students who babysits the couple’s three-year-old son Devon — because she’s arrived with a black eye, suggesting boyfriend abuse.

Intimations that Catherine, dissatisfied with her academic life, still has eyes for chronically unambitious Don — and he for her — while Gwen itches to throw off the shackles of her domestic existence intensify when Gwen and the surprisingly intelligent Avery begin taking a summer class that Catherine, on sabbatical from a more prestigious-sounding academic slot, gives concerning the uncertain status of 21st-century women.

The fact that Gwen and Avery are the only students registered for Cathy’s course and that it takes place in the living room of her sharp-tongued mother Alice (Beth Dixon) — recovering from a recent heart attack, but who can join the trio for martinis — is only the first of several script coincidences that Gionfriddo thinks she can get away with (and kinda does) as her comic-drama unfolds.

Like the characters in television’s long-running Designing Women series, the three generations sit around discussing the changing-or-not-changing plight of women over half a century and arguing the politics of Betty Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly, with the usually savvy Alice and Avery, who are really the script’s wise voices, respectively representing old and new female thought.

Moreover, they all carry on as if Gionfriddo is offering a play and not what’s actually going on — a seminar on the tenuous position women hold in today’s society and whether women truly can have it all.

As the two-act work continues along predictable lines — when the possibility arises that Catherine might switch roles with Gwen and resume a full relationship with Don while Gwen and her older (unseen) son head to Manhattan and live the liberated life — any sentient audience member will guess the disillusioning outcome long before Catherine, Gwen and Don ever do.

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