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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Rapture, Blister, Burn
By Jon Magaril
Maybe you can't have it all. That's the bruising prospect facing 40-something Catherine and her friends. It's also what may occur to audiences watching this smart but not entirely satisfying play. As it ambles along, Gina Gionfriddo's serious comedy becomes a textbook example of how hard it is to balance plot and character development with high concepts and intellectual discussion.
Bookishness is part of the problem. The characters and playwright have done their reading and make no bones about recapping what they've learned. One senses this is an intensely personal play for Gionfriddo, but there's a chill in the air during much of Peter DuBois' accomplished production. It doesn't help that the title evokes outsized emotions that remain off-stage.
The inspiration for that title is the lyric "Rapture blister burns" from "Use Once and Destroy" written by the poster child for immolation, Courtney Love. Gionfriddo has tellingly added commas, signaling that she's more interested in the aching calm between the storms of impulsive, unreasonable decisions.
That doesn't mean there aren't moments of heat. The characters answer siren calls of lust and youthful ambitions. But they tend to hang up before the calls go on too long. They gravitate instead to the gentler pleasures of scintillating talk, camaraderie, and sustainable compromise.
Catherine (a subtle and supremely fit Amy Brenneman) is the "hot doomsday chick," a successful author and TV personality who, like Naomi Wolf and Camille Paglia, tells prickly truths on such topics as "pornography and the corruption of American feminism." She's returned to her home town to care for her mother Alice (Beth Dixon, refreshingly direct), who's just suffered a heart attack.
The media darling has to deal with some heart failures of her own. She and Don (the ever-reliable Lee Tergeson) were grad school sweethearts until she went off to London on a fellowship. While away, her roommate Gwen (a wry Kellie Overbey) swooped in and married him. Since then, Don's family life has come to represent her road not taken.
Catherine heads back down that road once she starts teaching at the town college where Don, who lacks discipline, is the disciplinary dean. The first act charts the steady lead-up to the resumption of their romance. Yet, the act is dominated by academic discussions of gender roles.
Her seminar meetings play out in real time. Fascinating and surprisingly funny, they're also unhelpfully schematic. Catherine herself points out, "I want a tri-generational perspective." These aren't words an audience longs to hear. They contribute to a sense that the play is an illustration of ideas rather than an exploration that's taken even Gionfriddo to unexpected areas.
The generation of women entering middle age is represented by Catherine and Gwen. The former's chosen to focus almost exclusively on her career. The latter, a recovering alcoholic in a foundering marriage with Don, feels her only satisfaction comes from being a mother to two boys. Inspired by her old roommate's return, she's decided to finish her degree.
Young co-ed Avery (Virginia Kull, in the most stylized but also most engaging performance) shoots provocative videos with her philandering boyfriend in the hopes of bagging a reality TV deal. She's uninterested in the history of pre-feminism because it's "like discussing why people thought the earth is flat. It's not, they were wrong, we've moved on."
Crisp dialogue like that is counterbalanced by more canned insights, like some of those offered by the 70-something Alice who reps the post-war generation. She may right when she says "No worthwhile man wants to depend on a woman... It's how I was raised. It just doesn't seem natural to me," but it isn't shimmeringly distinctive.
These issue-oriented scenes pull the play into George Bernard Shaw territory, but without much texture or drive. Their kick comes from the blurring of lines between conservative and liberal thought. The views of alleged anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly are taken seriously. What's more, the second act plot, to a large extent, bears out her beliefs on what men want from women.
Once Catherine and Don kiss, we expect the play to leave the abstractions behind. But the second half presents another schematic element "like in a Disney movie." When Gwen finds out about the affair, she admits she may have wanted it happen. She'd grown tired of Don's porn habit and lack of ambition. So Catherine asks, "You want to switch lives with me?"
The New Yorker offers her empty apartment and a stipend so Gwen can spend quality time with her beloved older son while she attends summer school in the city. For her part, Catherine will get Don to herself and find out what it's like to help take care of Don and Gwen's three-year-old.
The fluidity of social roles, as with gender, feels fresh. But tradition and habit prove difficult to shake off. Fortunately, the play is hard to shake, as well. Its emotional aches and astute observations burrow in.
It helps that the sterling cast and creative team have transferred from the premiere production off-Broadway. The characters' familiarity with each other is never in doubt. There's an ease as well in how Alexander Dodge's lovely set shifts locations.
But with everything that's admirable about the play, it won't prove as epochal for women in their early forties as The Heidi Chronicles was to women ten years younger. Wasserstein's work is clearly the prime influence here. Catherine Croll, Heidi Holland. They're as alliterative as their authors' names. Each seems autobiographical, sharing a core of loneliness. But we don't warm to Catherine as we do Heidi.
Much of that's inevitable. Gionfriddo's got thicker skin than her predecessor. She's not afraid to show her lead characters' warts. Here, Catherine drinks too much. She doesn't demonstrate the slightest interest in motherhood. And she doesn't see Don or even her academic subject matter as clearly as Avery does.
None of this endears. What's worse, it also doesn't burn. In such works as the terrific Pulitzer Prize nominee Becky Shaw, Gionfriddo's bracing honesty has been much more galvanizing. But it's never handled harder truths.
Like many who enter middle age, Catherine is recognizing that death is inevitable and romantic disappointment, likely. She carries a vague sense of desperation, but we see no blisters which come from handling the pain and fear of that realization. And we sense no possibility of rapture that can come from hope or acceptance.
Ultimately, Catherine, Gwen, and Don learn there's no shame in not having it all. Rapture, Blister, Burn may not spark our deepest emotions. As a whip-smart report on contemporary womanhood though, it goes to the head of the class.