“Rapture, Blister, Burn,” Gina Gionfriddo’s clever send-up of feminists on the ropes, has a neat comic throughline: Two friends who took divergent paths to happiness are now second-guessing their choices and wishing they could switch lives. The first-act setup is overwritten and dull, but the second act finds Ms. Careerist and Ms. Homemaker fighting over the same man, which allows the scribe to get a lively debate going about gender roles and career issues that were supposedly resolved in the first wave of feminism. Mechanical work is needed, but the sharp dialogue and smart ideas make it worth the effort.
May we skip all the introductions and cut to that terrifically witty second act?
At the top of that act, Catherine Croll, a most appealing Every (career) Woman in Amy Brenneman’s intelligent perf, has achieved her goal of stealing her old friend’s husband and is knocking herself out to make him happy. Don Harper (as shallow as he needs to be, in Lee Tergesen’s self-effacing perf), lives by the myth that he was destined for great things but was sidelined by his conventional marriage (to Kellie Overbey’s sour Gwen Harper) and stifled by fatherhood.
Taking him at his word, superstar Catherine has walked away from her successful academic career to join Don in his self-indulgent habits of sitting around in pajamas, bingeing on junk food and watching porn. At the same time, she keeps urging/nagging him to unleash that creativity he keeps talking about by writing a book or something.
Meanwhile, Gwen has been working on her own fantasy of trading places with Catherine by going back to school. But after a month of that, she decides that she wants her old life — and her old husband — back. Unlike Catherine, who is essentially clueless about slacker guys, Gwen knows that jerks like Don don’t want female encouragement to be giants, they just want permission to be jerks. So once savvy Gwen climbs back into the ring, this contest gets really interesting.
In fairness, the play is essentially all talk. But it’s quite smart talk, lots of fun and full of insights about the eternal disconnect in communications between men and women — not to mention the Freudian conundrum of what women really want.
Gionfriddo’s target female audience should also appreciate the multigenerational attack on the issues she raises. Catherine’s feisty 70-year-old mother, Alice (played with droll good humor by Beth Dixon), isn’t relegated to the conventional role of disapproving parent, but has some independent ideas of her own. And a teenaged babysitter named Avery (played with hilarious world-weary wisdom by the gifted Virginia Kull) provides some of the play’s funniest — and most incisive — laugh lines.
When everyone gathers in Alice’s living room for Catherine’s informal classes in the feminist aesthetics of pop culture, the wit is of a very high order indeed. The topics range from raunch feminism and torture porn to Phyllis Schlafly’s thoughts on careerism, and the crackling debates they inspire are something you don’t often hear on a stage anymore.