GINA GIONFRIDDO’S COMEDY-DRAMA UPDATES FEMINIST HISTORY
BY HENRY EDWARDS
In 1988, Wendy Wasserstein’s “Heidi Chronicles” debuted at Off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons. Destined to become a big hit, the play eventually traveled to Broadway, where it enjoyed a long run and was rewarded with a Tony award and the Pulitzer Prize.
Fourteen years later, in mid-May, "Heidi"'s birthplace, Playwrights Horizons, mounted the world premiere of Gina Gionfriddo’s “Rapture, Blister, Burn,” triggering a series of comparisons between the two plays.
Writing in the New York Times, playwright Gionfriddo pointed out that although Wasserstein’s "Heidi" ends in 1989, and her "Rapture" begins in 2012, the female protagonists of both plays appear to have the same complaints.
"Rapture" concerns former college roommates, Catherine (Amy Brenneman) and Gwen (Kellie Overbey) who chose polar opposite directions after grad school. Catherine built a career as an academic, author and feminist media celebrity; Gwen became a stay-at-home mom, marrying Catherine's ex-boyfriend, Don (Lee Tergesen), with whom she had two children.
When the women meet fourteen years later, each proves to be profoundly unfulfilled and covets the other's life. Thus commences a game of musical chairs with Catherine and Amy switching roles and Don, a once-promising academic has evolved into an unambitious, pot smoking, Internet porn addicted college dean—he is a man, after all—as the prize.
For almost all of the first act of the play, three generations of women, Catherine, Gwen, Catherine’s mother Alice (Beth Dixon), who recently had a heart attack, and Avery (Virginia Kull), Don and Gwen’s 21-year-old babysitter, a pre-med student who quit school to create reality television with her boyfriend, trace the history of feminism.
Avery, bristling with opinions and extremely funny every step of the way, simply cannot understand the way things used to be for women.
“You either have a career and wind up lonely and sad, or you have a family and wind up lonely and sad?” she observes of Catherine and Gwen.
The conversation places the emphasis on two extreme examples, activist Betty Friedan whose 1963 book, “The Feminine Mystique” has been credited with sparking the "second wave" of American feminism, and Phyllis Schafly(!), the controversial, right-winger who became known for her staunch opposition to modern feminism and campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment.
Of all things, Catherine offers a defense of Schlafly, saying she is very clear that when a man and woman come together, "the man must lead, and the woman must follow. Now, yes, that’s an offensive notion when you put it out there as a rule. But my middle-aged observation is that in a relationship between two people, you can’t both go first.”
While the first act is discursive and lacking in dramatic impact, the play springs to vivid life after intermission, it becoming clear Gionfriddo has used the first half as a lecture and the second as a lab in which we see the women in action, not the prettiest of sights and funny as well sad both at the same time.
In her Times story, Gionfriddo notes that both plays take as their focus an over-40 female academic with a successful career as an author who regards her personal life as lacking because she doesn't have a romantic partner or had children. Each finds herself re-examining the feminist movement to sort out how she could have come so far and still wound up unsatisfied. Each mourns the loss of a relationship she perceived to be a casualty of her ambitions. And each confronts a bold, confident woman in her early 20s who believes she has figured out how to have it all by observing the mistakes of older women.
“I accept that my play is a homage to 'The Heidi Chronicles,' but I swear I didn’t mean it to be,” says the playwright.
Nailing the central idea of her play with admirable precision, Gionfriddo, a 2009 Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Becky Shaw,’’ adds, "For both our characters career building proved incompatible with marriage. The dream, then and now, postfeminist and post-postfeminist (or whatever we choose to call this moment) is still simple and still incredibly hard: How do men and women figure out how to negotiate their equality better?"
“Rapture, Blister, Burn” is wonderfully served by its cast of five and neatly staged by Peter DuBois. Amy Brenneman is especially delicious as she undergoes a transformation from feminist academic to man-hungry, lovesick mistress of a guy whose behavior often resembles that of a jackass.
Feminism and the role of women in society today is hardly a subject that appeals to playwrights. Thus “Rapture, Blister, Burn” is an anomaly. It is also intelligent, funny and since the human comedy is a comedy of errors, the humor is perhaps best described as bittersweet.
For the most part, the critics adored “Rapture, Blister, Burn.”
Leading the way, Charles Isherwood of The New York Times wrote: “intensely smart, immensely funny...As Ms. Gionfriddo’s play illustrates, each generation of women has to struggle with evolving attitudes toward marriage, not to mention the seemingly unchanging verities of the male psyche...Heady with sharp-witted dialogue about the particularities of women’s experience...’Rapture’ more largely illuminates how hard it can be to forge both a satisfying career and a fulfilling personal life in an era that seems to demand superhuman achievement from everyone.”
The title stems from the Courtney Love song, "Use, Once and Destroy," purportedly about Love's former drug abuse.
Rumors abound that, following in the footsteps of "Heidi," "Rapture, Blister, Burn" is eventually destined to make its way to Broadway.