Playwright Gina Gionfriddo asks, in her new play, ‘Rapture, Blister, Burn,’ and her life: What do women want?

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Beth Dixon, Virginia Kull, and Amy Brenneman (Carol Rosegg)
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Huddled around a kitchen table, three women—two in their 40s, one just out of her teens—try to solve an ancient, perplexing riddle: What do women want? And where, if anywhere, can they find it?

After some disconsolate debate, the youngest woman, Avery, sets down her iPad and gripes, “So is the message that women are fucked either way? You either have a career and wind up lonely and sad, or you have a family and wind up lonely and sad?”

One of the older women, Catherine, responds, “I'm told some women do both... effectively.”

“I don’t know any of them,” says her friend Gwen, dryly.

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These are the heroines of Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn, a searing and rueful play now on at Playwrights Horizons. Since Playwrights debuted Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles in 1988, few Broadway or Off-Broadway scripts have charted a similarly head-on approach to the subject of contemporary American feminism. (Well, the straight, white, middle-class version at any rate.) But whereas Wasserstein’s play concludes, in a scene as sweet as it is saccharine, with the heroine’s cuddling of an adopted baby girl, Rapture doesn’t offer any such soothing, rock-a-bye answers.

Gionfriddo is 42, perhaps a year or two younger than Catherine, the childless professor played by Amy Brenneman, and Gwen (Kelly Overbey), a housewife who married Catherine’s former boyfriend Don (Lee Tergesen). When Catherine returns home to care for her ailing mother, the women develop mutual envy and decide to “switch lives.” Gwen and her older son will decamp to Catherine’s chic apartment in New York City where Gwen can resume her graduate studies, while Catherine will stay with Gwen’s husband and baby. Contentment does not come to either.

But Gionfriddo is trying to write a more joyful story, in her life if not in her art. Over a break during a run-through in mid May at the Playwrights Horizons rehearsal space, she sat at a table near a window overlooking a rooftop playground across 42nd St. She has spent a lot more time near playgrounds since she gave birth seven months ago to a daughter, conceived with donor sperm. “I kept thinking I’d probably meet the right person and then I really didn’t,” she explained.

Having a child meant making compromises in her work, which includes writing for “Law & Order” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent."

"Even my parents said, ‘You have a really good career, don’t fuck it up,’" Gionfriddo said. "But I felt that I had to be very firm about what I was doing and if it cost me money, if it cost me success, I had to do it.” Though she had promised herself she’d return to work full time after only a couple of months, she has not. “It wasn’t a decision about what was good for my kid,” she said, “as much as that I didn’t want to miss out."

When politely confronted with the evidence that a new Off-Broadway play and an episode for Netflix’s upcoming series “House of Cards” might not exactly constitute taking it easy, Gionfriddo demurred. Of Rapture, she said that she went to the first rehearsals and then dropped away until tech. To write the TV script, which helped her keep her health insurance, she said she did require full time childcare, but only for a month. Her caregivers of choice: “Unemployed actresses. My baby loves them so much. I have a bunch of them. When they get auditions I can call another one.”

You might not have picked Gionfriddo to write Rapture. She tends to script dark comedies of manners that occasionally touch on the abuse of women, but often feature male protagonists. She's not always sympathetic to her female characters, who are examined with a psychological acuity that's nearly forensic. Though varied in terms of temperament, status, and age, Angela and Allison of 2002'sU.S. Drag, Ashley and Julie of 2004's After Ashley, Becky and Suzanna of 2009's Becky Shaw all blend naiveté and cunning.

These women are both predators and prey, destroyers and destroyed. What one character says of Becky Shaw’s titular heroine might apply to nearly all Gionfriddo’s females: “You may have been very victimized in your life; you may be a complete con artist. I don’t know. My sense is you fall somewhere in the middle.”

If her previous works take such a wryly skeptical view of feminine moral conduct, what made a play about contemporary feminism suddenly seem necessary? “It’s not my personal narrative,” Gionfriddo said, yet her own experience does seem to have sparked this script (rather than the play about pornography she originally set out to write). As she turned 40, “I was thinking what if my life was me and a child what if my life was just me,” she said, “or what if I meet the love of my life when I’m 60, all of these possibilities I hadn’t considered.”

Rapture, then, is a way of exploring at least two counterlives, one given over entirely to career, the other to family. And it is also a way of entertaining a fantasy that a woman might, even in her mid 40s, suddenly seize an entirely new life—at least for the space of a summer.

There were also deliberate artistic choices that shaped the play. "I was giving all the charismatic lead roles to guys" and “really wanted to make a play where the women are the chunky roles.” External political concerns helped, too, particularly the series of laws enacted restricting abortion and contraception rights. Growing up, she said, the overturning of Roe v. Wade seemed unthinkable. “It’s only sort of recently that I’m like, ‘Oh shit, that might happen.’ So I think the very recent past has made those ‘70s women’s battles more urgent to look at.”

She had also observed that a younger generation of women, embodied in the play by college student Avery—who describes the weeks she spent stripping as “really good for me emotionally”—were reluctant to take up the feminist mantle. Gionfriddo recalled chats with her 20-year-old cousins who disliked the term “feminist.”

“One of my cousins said to me, ‘I’m not a feminist, I like cooking for my man.’” Gionfriddo feared that young women today didn’t care about the gains made by the women’s movement. “Avery in the play is so cavalier about having the right to vote,” said Gionfriddo. “Things that were huge battles, you wind up with 20-year-olds saying, ‘Eh, whatever.’”

Such a viewpoint assumes that the struggle for rights and equality has been entirely won. But Gionfriddo says her play concerns what’s still “unresolved."

"I feel like I was part of a generation that was told very loudly that we could have it all and in our real lives it turns out it’s a lot harder than I heard it would be.” It’s fairly depressing to note that some of the same questions that plague The Heidi Chronicles, which Gionfriddo first read more than 20 years ago, remain relevant, such as the question of whether or not men desire successful women. In The Heidi Chronicles, Heidi’s sometime lover Scoop tells her, “I don’t want to come home to an 'A+.’” In Rapture, Don tells Catherine, “You work harder and you're a couple I.Q. points smarter. I wouldn't have stuck around for that.”

Gionfriddo can’t have been the first playwright to notice the continuity of such concerns, to mark a generational divide in feminism, to fear legal incursions on women’s freedoms, or to observe that the mommy wars and the debates over work-life balance seem no closer to resolution. Gionfriddo was only one of a number of playwrights to participate in a town hall meeting at New Dramatists about the scant number of productions for new plays by women. So why haven’t more playwrights felt compelled to script plays like Rapture, Blister, Burn?

Part of the problem may stem from the dearth of mid-career female playwrights. Many young women eventually leave the theater, lured to teaching or television or other more remunerative, more stable vocations. Or maybe women are writing these plays, but we aren’t seeing them produced. Plays focused on the lives and concerns of women might be considered too niche or insufficiently sexy. Gionfriddo recalled explaining, at the New Dramatists meeting, to Atlantic Theater’s artistic director Neil Pepe that many plays by women use alternate structural models that may seem less familiar to producers.

“Classical structure says there have to be big changes,” said Gionfriddo. “Women are more comfortable than men writing about situations that don’t change.” This recalls the French feminist theories of, among others, Luce Iragaray, who proposed an “écriture feminine” an alternative to male writing practice, that would mirror female sexual response (lots of climaxes or none) rather than the male one (rising action, climax, falling action). In place of “big, violent" narratives, Gionfriddo calls for "stories to be told where lives that don’t change, stories where violence should happen and never does.”

This shouldn’t suggest that Gionfriddo’s plays aren’t violent. U.S. Drag hinges on a series of assaults, After Ashley on a rape and murder, Becky Shaw on a gunpoint robbery. But unlike in her "Law & Order" episodes, the violence remains offstage. (So, incidentally does the sex. “I think it looks fake,” said Gionfroddo. “It stresses me out.”) What is left visible is emotional violence, made searing by Gionfroddo's ability to anatomize her character’s psychology. Rapture, Blister, Burn takes its title from a song by Courtney Love’s band Hole. In the same song, Love sings, “I went down for the remains/ Sort through all your blurs and stains.” That seems an excellent description of Gionfriddo’s methodology. She isn’t cruel toward her characters, but she is pitiless in exposing their flaws.

In fact, initial drafts of Rapture, Blister, Burn proved perhaps too pitiless. Many early readers found the close of the play despairing. Gionfriddo didn’t necessarily agree, and spoke of wanting the freedom to write a variety of characters, “but there’s a sense that you don’t want to put a bunch of weak, desperate, defeated women onstage.” So she altered the tone of the final lines to seem rosier.

But even with these alterations, Rapture’s close leaves Catherine without the prospect of a lover, and Gwen no closer to completing her graduate degree. Despite the lack of woman-centric plays on offer, most ticket buyers are women, so a play confronting women’s concerns ought to resonate. Yet it remains to be seen if women will show up for a play—no matter how insightful, no matter how lacerating, no matter how funny—that presents many of their difficulties as insoluble.

What if these difficulties aren’t really so difficult? After all, Gionfriddo's own life presents one solution to the cautionary tale her plays offers. Though she threatened harm to “the next person who says 'Tina Fey does it,'” she seems to successfully manages both a child and a career. (On Mother’s Day, she and the baby brunched with friends. Then she placed her daughter with a sitter and went to tech rehearsal.) When she speaks of her daughter, Gionfriddo's voice lowers, her face softens. It's that same sugary happy ending Wasserstein supplied for Heidi. But this time it's real.

'Rapture, Blister, Burn' is on at Playwrights Horizons through June 24. More information here or call 212-564-1235, ext. 3152. All photos by Carol Rosegg.