What a delight it is to experience a play that is intelligent, provocative and highly entertaining. Essentially, Gina Gionfriddo has taken on the challenge of writing a discussion play, the sort of thing Shaw did so brilliantly a century ago. In RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN, Gionfriddo has set her sights on the position of women in 2012 through conversations between women of three generations and one man.
Katherine (Amy Brenneman) is a highly successful forty-something academic and writer. Like many successful academics in the humanities, she has found a gimmick to give her crossover success -- books on the intersections between feminism, pornography and violence. Her books, typical of this kind of pop academic, are filled with some knowledge and a fair amount of unsupported generalizations and facile connections. Katherine sees herself as a feminist, but is in the midst of a mid-life crisis. She has come back to her New England home town after her mother has had a heart attack. Katherine has come to realize that, other than her mother, she has no one to love and no one to love her. When we meet Katherine, she is in the back yard of her college roommate, Gwen (Kellie Overbey), a stay-at-home mother, and Gwen's husband, Don (Lee Tergesen) whom Gwen "stole" from Katherine fifteen or so years ago. Gwen and Don's marriage is anything but passionate. Gwen resents Don's lack of ambition and his preference for pornography rather than her. Also in the mix are Gwen and Don's baby sitter, Avery (Virginia Kull) , a twenty-one year old who has very definite ideas about female empowerment, and Katherine's mother (Beth Dixon), whose views were shaped in the pre-feminist era.
In order to allow these characters to banter and battle, Gionfriddo depends on two gimmicks. First, that Katherine and Gwen would want to switch roles, at least temporarily, and that Katherine would be hired to teach a seminar on feminism that only two students sign up to take, Gwen and Avery. Katherine conveniently holds the seminar in her living room so her mother can join in. One buys into these somewhat shaky premisses because the characters are so sharply drawn and well acted, the dialogue so lively and the perceptions so astute. Essentially the women come to realize that the ideas of that enemy of feminism, Phyllis Schlafly, actually have some merit. Women can't have it all. Through Don's character, we also see how men still have problems dealing with women who are smarter and more ambitious than they are. Like Shaw, Gionfriddo knows to give everyone a convincing argument. Shaw prided himself on being an iconoclast, and Gionfriddo seems to have proudly taken on that mantle.
The cast does justice to this stimulating play, managing to make all the discussion spring from the characters' conflicting emotions and confused objectives. Director Peter Dubois has deftly paced the production.
I thoroughly enjoyed Gina Gionfriddo's last play, BECKY SHAW. RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN is more ambitious. I can foresee some negative criticism from New York reviewers and politically correct academic critics. The audience at Playwrights Horizons gave it the enthusiastic reception it deserved.
RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN. Playwrights Horizons. May 31, 2012.