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Rapture, Blister Burn

My middle-aged observation is that, in a relationship between two equals, you can’t both go first. —Catherine, the middle-aged woman who is caught up in this between a rock and a hard place choice of "who goes first" as well as what comes first in making and reflecting upon one's life choices.

We all have personal mythologies we cherish. The people we love go along with them, but understand they are never going to happen. Hence, they do not push us to make them happen.—Avery
Amy Brenneman
(Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)
The resemblance between the title character of Gina Gionfriddo's Pulitzer Prize runner-up, Becky Shaw to Becky Sharp, the anti-heroine of William Makepeace Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair was purely and presumably intentional. In an article in The New York Times ("All Hail ‘Heidi’: Beyond Feminism but Still a Dream"— June 7, 2012), Ms. Gionfriddo wrote that she could understand why many people would view her new play, Rapture, Bliss Burn, as a 2012 version of Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles (1989). Like Wasserstein's Dr. Heidi Holland, Catherine, Gionfriddo's central character, is a 40-plus academic success with a less than satisfactory personal life. Unlike the Becky Shaw/Becky Sharp link, however, this time around the connection was more subconscious than intentional.

Ginofriddo, herself now in her forties, was a college sophomore when she saw and was deeply moved by Wasserstein's first and biggest hit at Playwrights Horizon where her own smart and entertaining new play. is now having its world premiere. Though she didn't consciously set out to have her play's professional superstar continue where Dr. Heidi left off, Rapture, Blister, Burn does continue to explore feminist issues and is thus, a sequel of sorts.

Heidi Holland's twenty-five year journey through the women's movement and other seminal events left her having to deal with dashed hopes and uncertainty. The same is true for Ginofriddo's Catherine (Amy Brenneman, bringing intelligence and intensity to a rare and welcome appearance) and her graduate school roommate Gwen (Kellie Overbey in a deftly nuanced performance). Don (Lee Tergesen well cast as the attractive but perennial underachiever), Gwen's husband and Catherine's one-time boyfriend, has arrived with them at the critical fork in the road taken many years earlier.

Gwen and Don live in a New England College town with their sons, a 13-year old and a toddler. Don is a Dean at the town's not especially prestigious or big salary paying college. Gwen never completed her graduate work and is a stay-at-home mom. Catherine, on the other hand, is a distinguished Women's Studies teacher, author and lecturer who's carved a special niche for herself with her study of the politics of pornography within the women's movement and the destructive effect of sadistic media like slasher movies.

As a genre, Rapture, Blister, Burn takes a page from George Bernard Shaw's discussion plays. Yes, that means lots of talk. But it's good talk that's never tediously talky since Gionfriddo has an impressive ability to construct dialogue so real and engaging that it tempts you to jump on stage and join in. She's also tackled concepts interesting and pertinent enough to forgive her for moving things along with unlikely contrivances. Thus, by virtue of two convenient coincidences, the long out of touch Gwen, Don and Catherine are reconnected: Catherine's beloved mother Alice (the delightful Beth Dixon as the mother anyone would hate to lose) lives next door to Gwen and Don and has had a heart attack which prompts Catherine to take a sabbatical to care of her mother and enlist old pal and boyfriend Don's help to secure a temporary teaching job for her.

As it turns out Alice's physical problems aren't nearly as serious as Catherine's emotional health. Her mother's heart attack has led to mounting anxieties about being alone and unloved once the one person in her life who loves her unconditionally is gone. Marriage and family life, and settling for a decidedly less starry life than Catherine, hasn't worked too well for Gwen and Don either.

The threesome's past histories and present problems are bound to rekindle long buried feelings. In the hands of a less savvy author the inevitable aftermath could slide into cliched, soap operatic territory. Also insuring that it never does is the stellar cast and the way Peter DuBois,, who also directed Becky Shaw, ably oversees the smooth blending of discussion and active interchanges.

The 74-year-old Alice and 21-year-old Avery (Virginia Kull, a Playwrights Horizon favorite who should be on everyone's adorable, funny and smart actress list), a bright and sassy student at the college, turn the forty-plus characters' story into an intricate and provocative tri-generational discourse that will leave the audience with plenty to think about. While much of what happens is about hurt, there's plenty of laughter. Not surprisingly, the bookend generation, especially Kull's Avery, proves to be the most adaptable and wise.

The playwright has cleverly framed her story around a summer symposium that will be an intimate trial run of Catherine's Fall course based on her pornography and violent media findings. Since only two people are enrolled, and those two are none other than Gwen and Avery, the class will meet in Catherine's dining room. Thus Alice can serve drinks and chime in on the talk about the dynamics of how hers as well as the younger women's lives have been' affected by pre-feminism's social mores, various for and against women's rights gurus as well as well as pornography and violent "entertainment" like slasher movies. Once again, this is a case of excusable poetic license (not even an adult education course would ever run with an enrollment of two), especially since the symposium sessions are some of the play's best scenes.

While Amy Brenneman seems to have managed to have it all (Harvard degree, solid career as an actress and founder of a theater company, marriage and children) and Ms. Gionfriddo is managing to raise a child and have a TV and stage career, motherhood is not used to give Catherine' a happy ending. The playwright has opted to end herscenario with a refreshing re-coupling of the main players. I won't tell you more than that super feminism opponent Phyllis Schlafly is part of the clinking martini glasses finale.

The production values are up to the standards Playwrights Horizons subscribers have come to expect. After seeing another premiere the day before that suffered from overdone stagecraft, it was a pleasure to see Alexander Dodge's simple but fluid sliding set shift the action between Gwen and Don's backyard and Alice's home.

Even Gina Gionfriddo's basically fun plays like US Drag (2008) never lapse into storytelling that relay on the same old tricks. Rapture, Blister, Burn is no exception. For young and ambitious dreamers. . . for all who must adjust to the possibility that their lives belong in the slow lane, and that their parents won't live forever . . . and for all who appreciate s zingy, contemporary dialogue and interesting, well portrayed characters, Rapture, Blister, Burn will provide two stimulating hours. My only complaint. It runs too briefly.

Rapture, Blister Burn by Gina Gionfriddo
Directed by Peter DuBois
Cast: Amy Brenneman (Catherine), Kellie Overbey (Gwen), Lee Tergesen (Don), Beth Dixon (Alice),Virginia Kull (Avery).
Scenic design: Alexander Dodge
Costume design: Mimi O’Donnell
Lighting design: Jeff Croiter
Sound design: M.L. Dogg
Stage Manager: Lisa Ann Chernoff
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission Playwrights Horizons Main Stage West 42nd Street
From 5/18/12; opening 6/12/12. closing 6/24 /12
Tuesday, 7PM; Wednesday - Friday, 8PM; Saturday, 2:30PM & 8PM; Sunday, 2:30PM & 7:30PM
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at June 9th press preview
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