Gina Gionfriddo’s perfectly acerbic Rapture, Blister, Burn is littered with potential pitfalls, but handily sidesteps them all to deliver a frequently hilarious, often discomfiting look at the trials of feminism, unfulfilled expectations, and the gaps between what we want and what we really, really want.
There are opportunities all over the place for this thing to descend into something obvious, overly didactic, or worse. The “grass is always greener” plot summary about two old friends each wishing they had the other’s life smacks of the worst kind of programmatic pap, but the narrative reality is far more nuanced. Similarly, if I were to tell you large chunks of the play are devoted to academic discussions about feminism’s place in the modern world, enthusiasm would likely not ensue, but these scenes play beautifully – not as overt explications of themes but as surprisingly revealing character moments.
On opposite sides of the life spectrum are Catherine (Kirsten Potter) and Gwen (Kathryn Van Meter), old grad school roommates who reconnect when Catherine comes home to care for her sick mother (Priscilla Lauris). Catherine is a highly successful academic and author, a Naomi Klein-type whose books on torture porn and reality TV have landed her prestige and guest spots on Bill Maher’s TV show. Gwen is a homemaker, a grad school dropout with a couple of kids and a strained marriage to Don (Jeffrey Fracé).
Their shared academic experiences aren’t the only things that bind Catherine and Gwen. Don, a college dean attempting to skate by doing as little as possible, used to be Catherine’s boyfriend before she left for a study-abroad program and Gwen fell into the girlfriend role. Even though the marriage is hardly a model of domestic bliss and the porn-addled, preternaturally lazy Don is self-admittedly not much of a catch, Catherine finds herself questioning her life choices.
The centerpieces of the play are the scenes in Catherine’s mom’s home, classes in an academic seminar Catherine is teaching to while away her wide-open summer. Conveniently, her only two students are Gwen and the babysitter Gwen just fired, Avery (Mariel Neto), less of a fully-formed character than a provocative catalyst. But whatever concerns I had about the narrative gymnastics required to set up these scenes dissipated as engaging, witty discussions among traditionalist Gwen, nu-nu-wave feminist Avery, and the increasingly less objective Catherine revealed a host of insecurities and cognitive dissonances within each character. Gionfriddo’s writing is bracingly crisp and willing to confront and consider a wide range of ideas. The prominent woman most name-checked in Rapture, Blister, Burn? No, not Steinem or Sanger; Phyllis Schlafly.
The play’s believability hinges on the performance of Potter, whose Catherine is forced to consider whether her dearest ideals still apply to her life. Well, good news: Potter is fantastic, allowing the roiling mix of conflicting thoughts to play out across her face and in her jerky physicality. Her dynamism contrasts nicely with Fracé’s drawling, sometimes almost somnambulant performance, perfectly appropriate for an anti-ambitious guy who is unfulfilled potential personified. As mom Alice, Lauris takes the play’s least substantial role and turns it into something special, her genial warmth adorably belying her fiercely held opinions.
Rapture, Blister, Burn has scarcely a drop of sentimentality in it; instead, it opts for agitation that’s both intellectually challenging and very funny. How’s that for avoiding pitfalls?
Rapture, Blister, Burn is onstage at ACT Theatre through Aug. 11. Tickets are available for purchase online.Powered by Sidelines