Two plays in one: a well-observed drama about a woman’s mid-life crisis, and an academic and occasionally comedic delve into the complexities of feminist theory. Peter’s Alley Theatre Productions’ staging of Gina Gionfriddo’s 2012 Off-Broadway smash is too lax to keep the two halves knotted densely together. This Rapture, Blister, Burn – a play described as “immensely funny” by the New York Times – only manages a few laughs and a smattering of heat. What remains is still quite powerful, as the intellectual and dramatic twists of Gionfriddo’s script are irrepressible. It’s a sort of deflated soufflé of a presentation – you get the whole dessert, but it’s not what it should be.
Neighbors are occasionally pumping their fists in solidarity and self-recognition, as bestselling professor/media darling Catherine (Aly B. Ettman) has increasingly honest discussions with her former roommate Gwen (Tiffany Garfinkle) and young student Avery (Gianna Rapp) in a summer seminar she teaches on feminism. The primary spark in their discussion is the love triangle between Catherine and Gwen over Gwen’s husband – and Catherine’s ex – Don (Dexter Hamlett). That ongoing drama provides plenty of fuel for the three women, plus occasional drop-in Alice (Nancy Blum), Catherine’s mother, to race around the past several decades of feminist thought.
As a play about the tough choices women must make between career and family, Rapture, Blister, Burn deftly avoids any definitive point of view; it spends as much time discussing anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly as it does Betty Friedan. Not even Catherine is certain that Schlafly’s men-are-from-Mars-women-are-from-Venus philosophy is as worthless and wrong as it seemed thirty years ago. Twenty-one-year old Avery provides much of the surviving humor with her modern viewpoint, a sort of realpolitik approach to sex, pornography, and dating that is interpretable as either wildly progressive or painfully regressive. The intellectual exercise is worthy of a seriously impassioned discussion on your drive home, or the next day or the next.
As a drama (that might have been a dramatic comedy) about adults trying to figure out how they want to handle children, career, and romance, the play is plenty engrossing. The plot itself is completely predictable to anyone who actually has some life experience, but the predictability is the point, as Catherine wrestles with the predicted outcome to try to break the mold. Don, Gwen, and Catherine are self-aware enough to describe their own flaws and how certainly they will never change or overcome them.
Rapture, Blister, Burn
closes October 22, 2017
Details and tickets
You can pick up on moments and lines that would have been funny if the stakes were kept higher, or more passion was brought to the proceedings. It must be said that a fair amount of the blame falls on Ettman, also the producer and company’s artistic director, who, while always believable, plays Catherine too introverted to bring the jokes and romance to life. A rare moment late in the play when she gets exasperated, finally, points to the energy level that would have converted this from a slightly comedic thought-drama into a raucous comedy of manners and mores.
Perhaps director Mark Kamie, who generally does clean yet unremarkable work moving the actors around, did not push Ettman enough. Perhaps the design, restricted by budget but unimaginative and occasionally awkward, did not inspire bold acting choices. Whatever the cause, Ettman’s lackadaisical approach pulls down the other actors’ performances a bit, although Garinfkle strives admirably for emotional conflict, and Rapp brings an easy charisma. Hamlett fares the best, perhaps because his character is set up as the man who enlivens Catherine. It’s worth noting that that role of Don, played by white men previously, gains interesting layers played here by a black man, given his complex reactions to the expectations of the world around him.
The most thrilling and telling moment of the performance I saw was when a set piece – a children’s picnic table – collapsed with Ettman and Hamlett sitting on it. Hamlett reacted in character, jumping up and laughing, while Ettman simply stepped back and waited for the next line; Hamlett searched for an ad-lib for a few moments, but then gave up and joined Ettman to continue the scene. Missed opportunities for real painful, incisive, outrageous character-based insight like that abound. If perhaps nothing is truly lost from Gionfriddo’s heady script, nothing is gained either; you would be equally served by catching this production as you would be by waiting for the next time Rapture, Blister, Burn comes around.
Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo . Directed by Mark Kamie . Featuring Nancy Blum, Aly B. Ettman, Tiffany Garfinkle, Dexter Hamlett, Gianna Rapp . Producer: Aly B. Ettman . Lighting Design: Peter Caress . Scenic Design: Dan Remmers . Sound Design: David Jung . Projection Design: Mark Kamie . Costume Design: Aly B. Ettman . Stage Manager: David Jung . Assistant Director/Assistant Stage Manager: Luke Beverley . Produced by Peter’s Alley Theatre Productions . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.