When the houselights went up for intermission at Gina Gionfriddo's provocative comedy of gender issues, Rapture, Blister, Burn, my immediate impulse was to ask my guest – a 1980s Columbia University Women’s Studies graduate who, like myself, remembers the days when an Upper West Side liberal’s coffee table was considered incomplete if not graced by a heavily earmarked volume of Susan Faludi’s latest and simply saying the name “Phyllis Schlafly” at certain cocktail parties would trigger the same venomous reaction the name “Haman” would receive from the most Manischewitz-soused participants at a Lower East Side Purim spiel – if it all seemed realistic to her.
Her reaction was intriguing; that it’s been so long since she’s heard people talking about these subjects. Certainly, Gionfriddo’s plot contains a perfectly balanced formula of contrivances and coincidences to help spark such conversation (Look how many generations of women just happen to be in the same room together!), but her dialogue is too clever, insightful and entertaining to complain. And perhaps in this era of “I’m not a feminist, but…” it’s a refreshing twist to hear dialogue from the standpoint of “I am a feminist, but…”
Taking its title from a line in Courtney Love’s wound-licking anthem, “Use Once And Destroy,” the play concerns two contemporary women in their 40s regretting their life choices; one that followed Betty Friedan’s inspiration to “have it all” and the other accepting the special privileges Schlafly insisted women enjoyed by not being equal to men.
Catherine (Amy Brenneman) is a celebrity author and television talking head who got famous for being the hot chick who wrote academic texts on feminism as it applies to pornography and horror movies. Never married and without children, she still clings to her feelings for her grad school boyfriend, Don (Lee Tergesen), who she left to pursue career opportunities. Don was quickly nabbed by Catherine’s roommate, Gwen (Kellie Overbey), who quit school to fulfill her dream of being a wife and mother.
Today, Don might not seem like quite the catch. A New England college dean with little interest in advancement, his main pleasures in life are drinking beer, getting high and watching Internet porn. Gwen is a recovering alcoholic who feels that staying sober betrays her WASP upbringing. She’s lost any interest in sex and feels trapped by her life of being a mother and wife.
What reunites them is when Don arranges for Catherine to teach at his school while she’s on sabbatical from a loftier institution to take care of her pre-liberation mother, Alice (Beth Dixon), while she recovers from a recent heart attack. A summer workshop that Catherine leads from her mother’s home attracts only two students: Gwen and her recently fired babysitter, Avery (Virginia Kull), an outspoken hipster who shows signs of having an abusive boyfriend.
Guided by director Peter DuBois’ light, peppy touch, the meat of the play is the spirited talk and debate that goes on during classes, where discussions of second and third wave feminism bring out Catherine’s longings for comfortable mediocrity and Gwen’s misgivings about not seeing what life could offer aside from marriage. Their attempt at a mutually beneficial solution is right out of sitcom 101 (Yeah, Gionfriddo actually tries that route.) but the play and the performances are good enough to inspire curiosity to see where it’s going.
The cast is excellent, with Overbey giving Gwen a detached acerbic manner that shows she’s surviving her horrendous marriage by emotionally separating herself from it, and Brenneman subtly hinting at the dissatisfied cracks beneath Catherine’s sexy confidence.
You may not find yourself empathizing with the characters, as they are presented as such extremes, but Gionfriddo makes solid points about the women they represent, and the emotional wall that separates us from them allows Rapture, Blister, Burn to be a very funny play that can inspire further post-theatre debate.
Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Kellie Overbey and Virginia Kull; Bottom: Beth Dixon and Amy Brenneman.