‘Rapture, Blister, Burn’ isn’t always believable, but the play is always fun, and razor-sharp

Brenneman, Overbey, and Kull in 'Rapture, Blister, Burn' (Carol Rosegg.)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

Follow: feed

I'm not sure whether graduation rates would go up or down if college were really as it's portrayed in Gina Gionfriddo's laugh-out-loud comedy Rapture, Blister, Burn. The students pass around cocktails, kick back on the professor's sofa and open up about their sex lives.

The discussion isn't entirely off-topic, as this is a women's studies class. But as the summer semester runs its course things get uncomfortable when much of the talk eventually centers around the same man.

The unorthodox professor is Catherine (Amy Brenneman), a hotshot academic whose books on pornography and violence have landed her on the talk show circuit. When her mother Alice (Beth Dixon) suffers a heart attack, she heads back to her New England hometown, filling her time with a low-stress teaching gig. Catherine soon reconnects with her college roommate Gwen (Kellie Overbey), who left academia years before so that she could raise a family.

Rather improbably, Gwen signs up for Catherine's class. It's only a matter of time before Gwen brings up her husband Don (Lee Tergesen), the college's unmotivated dean of students who has a "problem" with pot and porn. Catherine, who dated Don as an undergraduate and hasn't had any luck with men since, doesn't let reality stand in the way of her longtime fantasies about a life together.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

Ably directed by Peter DuBois, the play goes exactly where you think it's going, then takes a surprising turn: Catherine regrets not having a family and Gwen is unhappy in her marriage, so they decide to swap lives. Catherine takes up where she left off with Don, while Gwen moves into to Catherine's New York apartment with her showtune-loving teenage son.

Convinced that Gwen's constant carping is the reason for Don's unhappiness, Catherine tries the opposite tactic, joining him for all-night beer-and-pizza parties on the living room floor. (Alexander Dodge's clever set is spot-on.) When Don seems more listless than ever, she tries gently encouraging him to work on a long-overdue book project, which sends him scurrying for the door.

None of this is particularly believable, but Gionfriddo makes it a lot of fun. Classroom discussions of topics like the meaning of '70s-era slasher movies (Were they anti-feminist because the violence directed at women, or pro-feminist because the women successfully fought back?) are invigorating. If you look back fondly on late-night debates with fellow freshmen in your dorm room, you might feel like chiming in.

Feminism's failure to make women feel fulfilled might seem better suited for a lengthy article in an academic journal, but Gionfriddo finds plenty of laughs with a set-up that's both ridiculous and sublime. She knows her way around a funny line, and puts many of them into the mouth of Avery (Virginia Kull), Gwen's former babysitter and the only other student who signs up for Catherine's class. She's bored by the parts of the women's movement that seem to her like ancient history. "Once you start getting directions from Google," Avery says, "it seems like a huge hassle to unfold a map."

While Catherine and Gwen's job-versus-home dynamic can seem contrived, Avery represents a refreshing post-feminist middle ground. She believes that women can have it all, if they play their cards right. They just need to "outsource the homemaker shit" in order to have time for pursuing a career and raising kids. Kull, so good in last season's Assistance , also at Playwrights Horizons, makes Avery's combination of naivety and wisdom compelling.

Rapture, Blister, Burn is playing at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, between Ninth and Tenth avenues. Tickets are available at (212) 279-4200 or HYPERLINK "http://www.playwrightshorizons.org/mainstage.asp" playwrightshorizons.org.

EARLIER:A conversation with playwright Gina Gionfriddo.