Rapture, Blister, Burn feels less like an exploration of feminism today than a clever sitcom pilot that won’t be able to sustain its jokes for an entire season.
Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo. Directed by Peter DuBois. Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company. At the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA, through June 30.
By Terry Byrne
Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn (a 2013 Pulitzer Prize Finalist) treads lightly along a path littered with clichés about what women want. Under the elegant direction of Peter DuBois, the Huntington Theatre Company ensemble gracefully maneuvers around the script’s minefield of stereotypes, following dramatist’s calculating lead by never setting a foot on a provocative point.
Gionfriddo has said the script is an homage to Wendy Wasserstein’s trail-blazing The Heidi Chronicles, but 25 years after that play bowed, Gionfriddo’s script is content to pile on funny lines rather than add anything meaningful to the conversation. Rapture, Blister, Burn feels less like an exploration of feminism today than a clever sitcom pilot that won’t be able to sustain its jokes for an entire season.
The play opens with Cathy (Kate Shindle), a successful author and academic, reuniting with Gwen (Annie McNamara), her college roommate, and Gwen’s husband Don (Timothy John Smith), who happens to be Cathy’s old college boyfriend. Cathy has returned home from New York to help her mother recover from a heart attack, but the possibility of losing her mom has made her anxious about being alone and, in the one-track world of sitcoms, desperate for a man.
Since Cathy’s mother Alice (Nancy E. Carroll) doesn’t need a lot of care, Don, a pot-smoking, porn-watching dean of a modest, New England college, gets Catherine a job teaching a summer seminar on feminism. Only two students show up: Gwen and 21-year-old Avery (Shannon Esper), Gwen and Don’s sometime babysitter.
What follows is structured like a re-education lecture on feminism through the words of ’70s reactionary Phyllis Schlafly, aided and abetted by horror and slasher flicks. But Gionfriddo’s dialogue is so funny and this ensemble so deft we can almost forgive the obvious pedagogy and go along for the ride. Shindle does a lovely descent from confident intellectual to a horny woman who confesses she’s ready to “embrace mediocrity and ambivalence” in order to avoid being alone. Esper, representing the younger generation, strikes just the right tone of insouciance and naivete, while Gwen reveals the reasons behind her put-upon act.
And then there’s Carroll. Just watch in amazement as this master actress cocks her head in response to a comment, takes three side steps when she disagrees, or scampers off to make a pitcher of martinis at the slightest provocation.
That pitcher of martinis and the intimacy of the “class” soon turns into amusing discussions of assigned feminist readings and then into gossipy “girl talk” as Avery expresses shock at the older generation’s hang-ups about porn and relationships, Alice quotes such clichés as “no one buys the cow if he can get the milk for free,” and Gwen wonders if Cathy’s preparing to steal Don back.
When Don confides he’s still got a thing for Cathy, and Gwen says the marriage is over but that they’re too poor to divorce, Cathy suggests they switch lives. Gwen promptly heads to Cathy’s New York apartment while Don moves in with Cathy and Alice. The possibilities for this “grass-is-always-greener” scenario are rich and juicy, but Gionfriddo clings to the predictable.
The play never raises its emotional stakes high enough to make us worry about Cathy losing her mother or to care about either Gwen or Cathy. Even given Smith’s measured portrayal of Don as an intellectual caveman, the character is presented as a plot-friendly boy toy for the two women to manipulate. At one point, Don even says, “you talk about me like I’m an old pair of shoes.”
In Gionfriddo’s somewhat adolescent world, relationships, as one character opines, “are simply exercises in illusion.” That belief is a terrific recipe for comedy—but its a surefire formula for superficiality as well.