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Rapture, Blister, Burn

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Rapture, Blister, Burn
Amy Brenneman, Kellie Overbey, and Virginia Kull.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Have you ever found yourself wondering just how beautiful a machine can be? If so, a sterling example is currently on view at Playwrights Horizons, in the form of Gina Gionfriddo's new play Rapture, Blister, Burn.

Both the playwright and director (Peter DuBois) of Becky Shaw, which had its New York premiere at Second Stage in 2009, have reunited for this examination of what women want and how the changing course of feminism over the decades has told them they're supposed to get it. At specific issue is whether Don (Lee Tergesen), the go-nowhere dean at a small college, is better off with his traditionalist wife Gwen (Kellie Overbey) or with Catherine (Amy Brenneman) the fiery, rich, and now-successful ex he once passed over, with Catherine's mother Alice (Beth Dixon) and 21-year-old Avery (Virginia Kull) to offer perspectives from very different points along the generational divide.

Gionfriddo has scribed an amazingly efficient, and even engaging, scenario for them all, in which Catherine returns to Don and Gwen's life longing for the perfection (stability, two children) she perceives in their rocky relationship, while all Gwen sees is the wealth, power, and freedom Catherine has amassed from the combination of her college degree and tenacity. Of course each openly wishes she could have the other's life, and of course (this being at least the semi-fantastical theatre) they both get it and discover (of course) that it wasn't quite what they were expecting.

The acting, from all five performers, is sterling, with each of the women occupying an intricately crafted niche that tells you everything you need to know about who she is: Overbey's Gwen is upright and stiff, but supple, clearly the enterprising homemaker with Dreams; while Brenneman expertly depicts a free-spirited and fleet-footed woman anchored in place by a very different set of chains. Dixon is brashly understated as the representative of the strait-laced (and more direct) ways of the past, while Kull is a saucy and scintillating vision of the young women of the present. Tergesen is superb at erecting a blank slate of a personality for Don on which they all can project their hopes, dreams, and expectations, many of which turn out to be simultaneously right and wrong.

Accompanied by pitch-perfect direction from DuBois, which makes full use of Alexander Dodge's attractively modular house set that Jeff Croiter has sharply lit (the fine costumes are by Mimi O'Donnell), this production gives you the most it seems is possible to get from Rapture, Blister, Burn.

It is, however, not very much.

With the exception of a running gag coupled with an admittedly spectacular payoff concerning a certain female conservative activist, Gionfriddo has approached her task without a single fresh narrative idea or spark of original theatrical insight. Her method of causing the women and their views to collide involves letting them loose in a summer-school seminar and articulating their views (and those of other major figures) in lengthy speeches and exchanges during which the procession of the drama stops dead. Neo-feminist Avery might momentarily clash with (or at least question) the old-school Alice, but it's not long until we see they agree on many of the fundamentals, if not always the language.

When she can't avoid pushing her action forward, you always see the mechanism beneath her actions, whether it's in the way Catherine reintegrates herself into Don and Gwen's life (with a surprisingly lucid drunken phone call) or by a late-show spiritual makeover in which everyone else suddenly sees everyone else's attitude as being the antidote to a particular sickness of the heart. So unimaginative, in fact, is the storytelling from the get-go, that I successfully guessed the exact contents of the first-act curtain moment less than five minutes into Act I before even all the players had been introduced.

This sort of predictability isn't necessarily a bad thing, provided the playwright upends it or at least justifies it at some point. Gionfriddo, alas, does not; it's not a means to an end, it's just the end. Fights like these have been fought (and, in many cases, won) so frequently over the last few decades that a simple restatement alone is not in itself sufficient to maintain an enlightened audience's interest over the two hours and fifteen minutes needed to unfold the story. Were the play not acted and staged with the unshakable conviction it is here, it would border on the unbearable.

But given the full spectrum of the details of the production it's received, Rapture, Blister, Burn doesn't merely argue for the importance of women who have it all. It demonstrates why it's so important that plays have it all, and why they shouldn't ignore any given element in favor of another. Completeness may be found, so Catherine, Gwen, and Avery learn, in the most unlikely of places, and it should be praised whenever and wherever it occurs, whether it's in the form of an impeccable package surrounding a commonplace piece of writing or in the outspoken opinions of Phyllis Schlafly.


Rapture, Blister, Burn
Through June 24
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets online and current schedule: TicketCentral