Photo by Michael Lamont
‘Rapture, Blister, Burn’
By Gina Gionfriddo
Directed by Peter DuBois
With Amy Brenneman, Beth Dixon, Virginia Kull, Kellie Overbey and Lee Tergessen
A Playwrights Horizon production at Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles
Aug. 13 – Sept. 22, 2013
“Rapture, Blister, Burn” and chuckle along with Gina Gionfriddo’s light romp through a seminar on feminist theory. What, you say, don’t I recall that the prevailing criticism in the 1970s and ’80s was that the feminist movement was lacking a sense of humor? With sitcom pacing, Pulitzer finalist Gionfriddo’s work romps through the story of sexy and single Amy, a wildly successful professor of feminist theory at some unnamed, but heavy duty, New York university. Here she is giving a seminar in a, similarly unnamed but inconsequential, little college in the town where her aging mother lives. Mom has just recovered from a heart attack.
Hey wait. Isn’t there a little déjà vu all over again? Didn’t an actress named Amy Brenneman conceive of, produce, and star in a TV drama named “Judging Amy” where a successful single woman moves back in with mom who has a heart attack but does not particularly want (or need) her daughter’s assistance? And doesn’t TV mom mete out words of worldly wisdom to said daughter? Yes? That is what I thought. Worth noting, but that is about where the parallels end. Alice (Beth Dixon), mom to Catherine (Amy Brenneman, yup, one and the same) was a stay-at-home mom. She is supportive and proud of her daughter’s successes, but not so sure that some of the old saws about how a woman should be with a man are wrong. She metes out her pearls of wisdom with martinis promptly served at 5 p.m. Members of the seminar (the students are Catherine’s dumpy ex-roommate unhappily married to Catherine’s not-so-successful ex-boyfriend, and 20-year-old, sophomorically wise Avery) join in as the seminar is held in said mom’s apartment … hey, these are different times. The reading list covers Betty Friedan, Phyllis Schlafly, Nancy Friday, and Carol Clover.
That’s right. I said they are reading Phyllis Shlafly in the 21st century. This is the how-to-get-and-keep-a-man Schlafly, not the anti-choice Schlafly. So it makes for superficial and dated dramatic tension as the personal (mostly man) problems of the four women get batted about in sound bite nuggets, many of which are quite funny, some of which hit close to home, namely the impossibility of having it all. As you could easily predict, Catherine ends up with ex-boyfriend-now-husband of old roommate, Don (Lee Tergesen). Though quite unsuccessful in his role as a minor dean in this small, nowheresville college, and addicted to internet porn, he’s still a hunk and Catherine sees herself as muse to his greater success. So, how do you think it is going to turn out? Happy couple forever, riding out into the sunset in their shared brilliance? If that is your take, better take up something other than trying to write a drama lasting over two hours.
Two things kept going through my mind: “Rapture, Blister, Burn” is like a graphic novel; it ostensibly deals with serious issues, but the space to elaborate is limited. It has the effect of a patina of serious thought without your having to work too hard thinking about it. On the other hand, it brought up echoes of how I felt when my husband gave me (a formerly stay-at-home-mom) a plastic sign for my desk as I sweated out my dissertation. It said “Wonder Woman Works Here.” The sign did not warm my heart. Having it all meant doing it all and that, my precious ones, borders on the impossible.
So what is the bottom line on “Rapture, Blister, Burn?” It is funny, but I dare you to remember anything two weeks from now. The acting befits the award-winning cast transferred from its off-Broadway run. Virginia Kull, in particular, the outwardly worldly 20-year-old, perfectly strikes the chord of brash self-confidence overlaying an inner core of self-doubt. I would love to be singing “Rapture’s” praises, but call me cynical; I am overdosing on sitcom-paced writing. It is fun to laugh, but theater like “Rapture, Blister, Burn” is like dining on dessert but thinking there must be an entrée stuck somewhere in there.