Rapture, Blister, Burn
Gina Gionfriddo offers something that regrettably few writers do: something to say.
Starting with her first play, "After Angela," and continuing with her Pulitzer Prize finalist drama, "Becky Shaw," Gionfriddo has demonstrated an interest in dealing substantively with the big issues of life. As she has more than a small measure of talent for character creation and for writing pithy and amusing dialogue, this puts her in a select class of current playwrights.
But there are other qualities displayed in her writing that -- arguably -- make her talent more worthy of notice than even some of the biggest names in the contemporary theater. Unlike Tony Kushner, for instance, Gionfriddo doesn’t write plays that are disguised lectures, and her tales aren’t four hours long.
This contrast between these two authors is ironically manifested in Gionfriddo’s superb new drama "Rapture, Blister, Burn" at Playwrights Horizons. After all, much of the play is constructed of classroom scenes that are supposed to be hour-long lectures.
But they are not sixty-minute monologues.
Instead, Gionfriddo turns them into a series of much briefer tangos in which two women in conflict over one man discuss the history of feminism as pretext and subtext to their larger fight. In Gionfriddo’s cleverly arranged if occasionally contrived scenario, one of the women has gone on to a career as a famed feminist intellectual (Amy Brenneman) while her sometime roommate (Kellie Overbey) has married her former flame and is now feeling balked by her life as a sex-starved housewife to this slothful, pot-head College Dean (Lee Tergesen).
The illness of the writer’s mother (Beth Dixon) prompts her to accept a Visiting Professorship at the Dean’s "fourth-rate" liberal arts college, where she teaches a class on the women’s movement and its relationship to pornography and other means by which women may be degrading themselves. When the feminist’s old friend signs up for the class with the claim that she wishes to finally get her graduate degree, their battle over the lover they’ve shared comes out into the open.
Who then shall have the man and a family and who will wind up with a life of independence and career? Has the glamorous feminist finally learned the art of manipulating men from her score of failed love affairs? Or is she still so book-smart, life-stupid that she’ll be in constant need of the sage advice provided by a tarty college student in attendance (Virginia Kull) and of the retrograde bromides of her mother?
There are a lot of laughs in the play, and during many parts of the show the audience I saw it with was roaring. This is testament both to the cleverness of Gionfriddo’s writing and to the superb women in the cast. Especially excellent are the veteran Dixon and Kull, the young beauty who was so fine in a range of very different roles in the Horton Foote trilogy staged by Signature Theater last year.
The one weak link is Tergesen. The former "Oz" star is described by the other characters as immensely bright, and we are told that his training as an academic was as a scholar of Melville, Dickinson and Melville. This is about as credible as Rob Schneider in the part of a retired hoops star or Jenny McCarthy as an actuary. While Tergesen is charismatic and intermittently charming, he delivers Gionfriddo’s urbane lines as mechanically as a postal meter.
In addition, the sharp abbreviation of the play’s "recitation" scenes leads to a somewhat hashed recounting of feminism’s Second Wave period, one in which the huge conflicts between Friedan and Steinem (over marriage, sexuality and many other crucial subjects) is given short shrift.
Yet, in spite of its flaws, both play and production give us what the theater does best if so rarely: a humane forum in which ideas and ethics can be weighed. Director Peter DuBois’s staging is efficient, and the play speeds along with plenty of twists and turns. That it is funny and touching makes Gionfriddo’s accomplishment that much greater.
"Rapture, Blister, Burn" runs through July 1 at Playwrights Horizons. For info or tickets, visit the Playwrights Horizons website