Theatre in Review: Rapture, Blister, Burn (Playwrights Horizons)
"That's a wonderful toast! Biting yet generous," says one of the characters in Rapture, Blister, Burn, as martinis are hoisted. It's also a pretty accurate description of Gina Gionfriddo's approach to her characters. A Sunday Times preview piece by the playwright positions Rapture, Blister, Burn as a kind of accidental response to Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles. To me, Gionfriddo's true antecedent is the novelist (and occasional dramatist) Dawn Powell, who also specialized in boozing, feckless characters hilariously trapped by their internal contradictions. Like Powell, she has the knack of nailing them and forgiving them at the same time. And a good thing, too -- because the people in Rapture, Blister, Burn need all the help they can get.
Catherine, Gionfriddo's heroine, has purveyed a couple of provocative women's studies tomes into Camille Paglia-level intellectual stardom, moving from academic conferences to appearances on Real Time with Bill Maher. When her mother, Alice, has a heart attack, Catherine comes home to the college town of her youth to care for her, convinced that Alice has only a year to live. Alice, a tough old bird who mixes a mean cocktail, is having none of it. In any case, "They say your life begins when your mother dies," she says, offering her own brand of maternal advice.
Catherine has landed a teaching job at the local college through the good offices of Don, the assistant dean and her graduate school boyfriend. In those long-ago days, Catherine; her roommate, Gwen; and Don were inseparable -- until Catherine went to London on an academic grant, leaving Don in the clutches of Gwen, an alcoholic who had no compunction about stealing her best friend's lover. Now, years later, Don and Gwen are married with two children, Gwen is sober ("She gave up drinking and took up talking," says the long-suffering Don), and all three are hesitantly trying to pick up where they left off.
It doesn't make life any less awkward that Catherine's summer seminar has only two students, one of whom is Gwen. (The other is Avery, an alarmingly candid senior who is "hooking up exclusively" with a young filmmaker; he's working on a reality series titled Town and Gown, which features Avery interacting with the bellicose locals. When we meet her, she is sporting a shiner from one such encounter.) The seminar, which combines gender studies with an examination of pop culture, becomes something of a group therapy session, thanks to the lubricating qualities of Alice's martinis. (Gwen drinks Shirley Temples.) In a conversation that ranges from Rousseau to Betty Friedan to Dr. Phil, Catherine admits to a certain ambivalence about having chosen career over marriage and family, and Gwen bares it all, admitting that her marriage to Don is a largely sexless affair, plagued by lack of money and Don's lack of ambition. Later, in a private moment, Alice bluntly informs her daughter, "You can have him if you want him."
The rest of Rapture, Blister, Burn follows Catherine as she gets tangled up in a rekindled romance with Don and an experiment in trading places with Gwen. The rapture of her affair is dogged by nagging questions, all of which hinge on whether Don is a pot-smoking, porn-loving ne'er-do-well by reason of his marriage or his essential nature. Meanwhile, Gwen, trying to cut loose in New York, discovers to her horror that her beloved older son is probably straight -- "When Julian goes away to college, you're gonna have a humongous breakdown if you don't start planning now," Avery helpfully advises her -- and Avery frets that she's losing her boyfriend to the fetching female consultant on a film about Mormons. Alice and Avery, convinced that desperate times call for desperate measures, dip into the seminar's readings on Phyllis Schlafly to advise Catherine on her romantic life. Meanwhile, Alice keeps whipping up servings of that marvelous truth serum in her cocktail shaker.
If The Heidi Chronicles portrayed women of the baby boomer generation as torn between traditional and contemporary role models, Rapture, Blister, Burn comically portrays their descendants as overloaded with choices, none of them palatable. Struggling to hold onto Don -- who himself can't decide if he wants a mother or an enabler -- Catherine announces in desperation, "I am ready and willing to embrace mediocrity and ambivalence; you're just not letting me." Gwen, who, it turns out, is hardly the injured party in this romantic triangle, flirts with independence but finds it no more satisfying than her flawed marriage. Avery makes a stab at becoming an old-fashioned coquette, with less than spectacular results. What's a woman to do?
Rapture, Blister, Burn isn't quite the comic powerhouse that Becky Shaw, Gionfriddo's last work, was, but the dialogue crackles and, if anything, her observations are more mordant. Peter DuBois directs with a fine, subtle hand that is fully in synch with the author's hold-the-vermouth wit. Amy Brenneman captures Catherine's tremendous self-assurance in the classroom as well her enormous appetite for rationalization while pursuing an affair that can have only one ending. As Gwen, Kellie Overbey is especially amusing when casting drop-dead looks at Catherine and turning a seminar discussion about the anti-feminist anxieties of slasher films into a coded argument about marriage and adultery -- her marriage and Catherine's adultery. A nearly unrecognizable Virginia Kull is a steady source of amusement as Avery, especially when imagining Phyllis Schlafly as the director of the Halloween horror film series.Lee Tergesen is appealing as Don, even when making clear, apologetically or not, that he is on the fast track to nowhere. Beth Dixon lands every available laugh as Alice, whose solution to every crisis involves extending the cocktail hour.
Alexander Dodge's setting, a vast surround of wooden shingles, is a kind of magic box that transforms rapidly into both Don and Gwen's backyard and Alice's living room. Jeff Croiter's lighting, Mimi O'Donnell's costumes, and M.L. Dogg's sound -- which makes good use of songs by Fleetwood Mac, one of rock music's most emotionally tangled groups -- are all spot-on.
No problems are solved in Rapture, Blister, Burn, and it's hard to say how much Gionfriddo's characters learn from their emotional tangles. Despite their consistently foolish and often self-sabotaging behavior, however, they manage to end up in a glow of forgiveness, courtesy of their author, who may very well be our most acute specialist in the comedy of manners. Let's all raise a glass to her.--David Barbour