Rapture, Blister, Burn
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
June 9, 2012
I've seen a great many "issue plays" in the five years that I've been reviewing theater, with mixed results. Far too often, these works, while written with the best of intentions, end up as prolonged discourses either for or against the issue, with characters who are more like mouthpieces than they are real people. Gina Gionfriddo's Rapture, Blister, Burn at Playwrights Horizons is the rare exception, a fiercely intelligent and damn insightful comedy that examines stances on feminism through the years in the guise of compelling, flawed, human characters and without the frying pan.
The protagonist is Cathy (Amy Brenneman), a life-long academic whose body of theoretical work examines such hot-button issues as internet pornography and the connection between slasher films and the September 11th terrorist attacks. Cathy has returned to her old homestead, a small college town, to care for her ailing mother Alice (Beth Dixon), who is recovering from a recent heart attack. Cathy’s loneliness has put her in touch with Gwen (Kellie Overbey), her former graduate school roommate, and Don (Lee Tergesen), an ex-boyfriend, who are now unhappily married with two children.
In an effort to pass the time and keep her intellectual juices flowing, Cathy takes a job at the local university where Don, a former professor, now serves as a disciplinary dean, and starts teaching a summer seminar in which Gwen enrolls. Also taking part in the course is Avery (Virginia Kull), the former babysitter of Gwen and Don’s children. Through this course, titled “The Fall of American Civilization,” we quickly learn that Cathy and Gwen are not so secretly envious of one another’s life. Gwen yearns to move to New York with her teenage son; despite having it all, Cathy, petrified at the prospect of being alone following her mother’s eventual death, has always considered Don the one who got away; and Don is satisfied merely with booze, pot, internet porn, and the bare minimum.
Gionfriddo ingeniously structures the work so that all the necessary exposition springs from the discussions within Cathy’s course. Impressively, the discussions, which examine, among other things, the contemporary resonance of Betty Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly, are neither heavy-handed nor overly pedantic; and are perfectly understandable for laypeople and academic scholars, so much so that I almost found myself wanting to jump in. The various viewpoints throughout the generations are represented in 21-year-old Avery, 40-somethings Gwen and Cathy, and 70-ish Alice.
Peter DuBois' direction keeps the play moving along when it could easily get bogged down in discussion, ably aided by Alexander Dodge’s mechanized shape-shifting set. At points, the text itself seems a bit too judgmental, particularly in its treatment of Don and Gwen’s internal struggles, and the second act takes a somewhat absurd left turn when Gwen and Cathy actually do switch lives, but the naturalness of the cast makes it easy to disregard these quibbles.
Brenneman, best known for television’s Private Practice and Judging Amy, smartly conveys Cathy’s conflicted nature—the socially-awkward, emotionally unavailable academic, and the frightened soul, desperate to forge a human connection before it’s too late. Tergesen and Overbey are completely believable in their layered portrayals of an unhappy couple. Dixon perfectly delivers delicious bon mots like “Your life begins when your mother dies,” and provides the mouthpiece for the pre-feminist movement attitudes. And the pitch-perfect Kull keenly exemplifies the youth that all of the characters are desperately chasing in one way or another.
There is no question that Rapture, Blister, Burn is a significant contribution to the American dramatic canon, especially when placed in conversation with the work of Wendy Wasserstein. And not only does it provide crackling scenes for acting students, but it provides substantially to text analysis courses. This play is important.