Rapture, Blister, Burn: Theater Review

Michael Lamont
Bright, glib and sweet comedy of contemporary manners shrewdly seduces audience laughs by stooping to many of the manipulative ploys it deplores, good-naturedly mirroring its characters’ own foibles. 

Classical period feminist thought is mined for comedy at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.

A joke shared by a post-Third Wave feminist (i.e., a current grad student): “How many Second Wave feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?” (Pause) “That’s not funny.”

So it’s no small feat to spin the earnest, impassioned social critiques of classical period feminist thought into riotous comedy, yet this transplant of New York’s Playwrights Horizons production of Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo (whose Becky Shaw and US Drag previously have been seen locally) at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood accomplishes frequent rueful merriment by testing theory through the wringer of half a life’s worth of compromised experience. Gionfriddo has the knack not merely to capture the zeitgeist of the moment, but to encapsulate how the zeitgeist cumulatively morphs across decades, making the development of values vibrantly relevant while compassionately satirizing their inevitable irrelevance.

Media star academic Catherine Croll (Amy Brenneman), who has made her reputation with defenses of pornography and popular culture and indictments of social decay hastened by political hysteria and a soul-freezing Internet, returns home to care for her mother Alice (Beth Dixon) after a heart attack, in the same New England hometown where her former grad school boyfriend, local college disciplinary dean Don Harper (Lee Tergesen) lives in his uneasy marriage to her former grad school roommate Gwen (Kellie Overbey). Despite the up-to-date mores and enlightened attitudes, the foundations of Rapture, Blister, Burn (almost too good a title, promising a more rhapsodic and romantic piece) rest solidly upon the bones of traditional commercial comedies of free-thinking modern women, poised somewhere between W. Somerset Maugham and, with a stretch, Noel Coward.

There’s a lot of lively exegesis of rudimentary feminist theory from Betty Friedan forward, which Gionfriddo entertainingly condenses without bowdlerizing, none of the ideas difficult (we’re talking Nancy Friday, not Andrea Dworkin save by indirection, let alone any grappling with gender theory), but summarized with an admirable refusal to misrepresent them with oversimplification. There’s great relish in the engagement of all the women in discussing both historical context and in bringing contemporary attitudes to bear in examining the dizzying changes in social perceptions over the last 20 years. None of this idealistic discussion wanders into dramatic digression: each argument and contending point advances the comic dilemmas confronting everyone’s lives. If anything, though, Catherine and Gwen partake of a sense of personal experience of events more appropriate to women 10 or more years older than their 42 years.

Certainly the first act proceeds expertly, as Catherine, encouraged by her mom, seeks to “steal back” the haplessly mediocre Don from the tenuously newly sober Gwen. Landmines of laughs are triggered with merciless precision, as the playwright skillfully deploys the characters’ own wits without much recourse to manufactured one-liners. After intermission, though, like many a morning after, the consequences of everyone acting on impulse and fantasy produces a hangover and no little regret. The play stops flattering the audience with shared pride in their progressive enlightenment and backtracks into pandering to its anxieties, veering into an appallingly regressive temperament that finds practical virtue in the narrow-minded prescriptions of Equal Rights Amendment opponent Phyllis Schafly, with their rigidly deterministic view of gender roles leading to highly manipulative (and ultimately self-defeating) behavior. To its credit the play exploits this ploy for some satiric effect, but it hedges its bets entirely too much not to be as ashamed of itself as its characters are. Everyone is far too reassured that conventionality, of one persuasion or another, will prevail.

One cannot praise the production and players too much: everyone may be playing a schematic representative variation, yet all pulse with credible life and never edge over into mouthpieces for viewpoints, despite incessant opportunity. Perhaps the most fraught role is that of the 21-year-old student going through a difficult period, Avery Willard (Virginia Krull), who has to carry the load of being both a to-the-moment update of the ditz and an ultimate fount of wisdom and experience and does so with inventive grace, projecting long-post-existential discomfort with deceptive ease.

Venue: Geffen Playhouse, Westwood (runs through Sept. 22)

Cast: Amy Brenneman, Beth Dixon, Virginia Kull, Kellie Overbey, Lee Tergesen

Director: Peter DuBois

Playwright: Gina Gionfriddo

Set designer: Alexander Dodge

Lighting designers: Jeff Croiter, Jake DeGroot

Costume designer: Mimi O’Donnell

Sound designer: M.L. Dogg

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