In her intelligent, slickly entertaining yet warm-hearted new play Rapture, Blister, Burn, Gina Gionfriddo (Becky Shaw) uses the trappings of academia to strip away the academic pretensions of the legacy of the feminist movement and lay bare instead some of its never-resolved pains and twists.
Catherine (Amy Brenneman, TV’s Judging Amy) is one of that rare breed, the modern popular intellectual, a star of the lecture and Real Time with Bill Maher circuit riding high on her books, which pull trendy topics like torture porn into the ambit of academia. In her early 40s, single, child-free, and driven, she has taken a sabbatical from her trendy New York City life to return to New England and care for her aging but still-scheming mother Alice (an adorable Beth Dixon) who’s had a heart attack. To occupy the summer days with some light academic responsibility, but also with a more hidden reason, Catherine reconnects with Don (Lee Tergesen), her ex from grad school days and a dean at a local college, and his homemaker wife Gwen (Kellie Overbey) who also figures dramatically in Catherine’s past.
The stakes start to clarify in a very funny early scene – there is much humor throughout – in which Don and Gwen’s babysitter Avery (a stinging and lively Virginia Kull) turns up for work with a black eye and Gwen refuses to let her tend to their three-year-old because it would suggest to the boy that violence is OK. Avery is making a reality show with her out-of-town boyfriend, and the dynamics of their relationship link in tricky ways with the hide-nothing ethos of the reality-TV era; with Catherine and Gwen’s alternate-track struggles; and with Alice’s recollection that in times past it was normal for women to feign the appearance of weakness to massage men’s egos, and what was so wrong with that?
In a two-hour display of consummate storytelling craftsmanship, director Peter DeBois threads Gionfriddo’s fast-moving script into a neatly tied tapestry exploring through three generations the places women find themselves after several waves of feminism, backlash, and, yes, the resulting horror-movie genres.
The playwright avoids preaching or unnecessary exposition, concocting a clever if unlikely way to get her four women together in an atmosphere of intellectual inquiry. Calling on the deities and demons of feminism, from Freud and Nancy Friday to Phyllis Schlafly, Catherine and her less learned companions bump and jostle their way through an amazingly neat yet somehow natural-feeling plot involving role reversal, man-appeasing, and the devastating of dreams.
The story rollicks along, thought-provoking and delightfully fun. After Don leaves the drably unhappy Gwen for Catherine, the degenerated old-new couple’s debauched new life squeals quickly to a halt when Catherine hints at a book project the intellectually flaccid Don might undertake – and he leaves, crushed.
It’s up to Avery to articulate the wisdom she learned when she quit ice skating as a girl and her elders turned the event into an object lesson about an Olympic dream quashed: It’s bunk. Everyone has a dream or ambition that will never come to pass, though the people who love us play along with our dream even though they know it isn’t to be. Catherine was driven enough to achieve notoriety and worldly success but is worried to death no one will be around to love her after her mother dies. Gwen and Don use the old flame’s arrival to indulge long-deferred ambitions of their own, with predictably sad results.
But it feels unfair to even use words like “predictably” and “sad” in talking about this play, when they’re the opposite of the fast-moving and fun flavor of the work. Well acted and crisply directed on Alexander Dodge’s cleverly sliding sets, Rapture, Blister, Burn has the usual top-notch production values of Playwrights Horizons, where it is running through June 24.
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