“I don't have time for men,” a female colleague recently told me — and she's not a lesbian. She's hard-working, ambitious, very smart, attractive, in her early 30s and professionally successful. She's also been dating a stream of men for at least a decade. Through all that time, she's been saying she'd love to find a guy to start a family with, but the males of her generation, she has discovered, are “boys, not men.” They lack chivalry, she complains. They lack consideration for others, and the tempering of self-absorption that comes with maturity. That's her view.
Her latest resolve came after she'd gone on a romantic getaway with a fellow she'd recently met who swore that she was the one, that they were made for each other, etc., and she was starting to feel the same way toward him. Then, without a word of explanation, he simply failed to call, text or return her messages after they got back to L.A.
My colleague is a woman who's going to do fine for herself, and perhaps by herself. Her possible future is echoed in some of the British imports that air here on PBS: the upwardly mobile barrister Martha Costello in Silk, and Detective Superintendent Sandra Pullman in New Tricks. These are smart, sassy women with influence within their respective professions. They often come home at night to sleep alone. On occasion, their loneliness, accompanied by a yearning for family, is unbearable for them.
This brings us to Gina Gionfriddo's Rapture, Blister, Burn, in a production that opened last year at New York's Playwrights Horizons, directed by Peter DuBois, which has transferred intact to the Geffen Playhouse. It takes a scintillating, revised look at the costs to women seeking to equal men in pursuing ambitions that extend beyond home and hearth. It also studies — within its academic frame — the costs to women who have chosen the opposite path, who have dedicated themselves to home and hearth. It then depicts with some compassion one woebegotten man stuck in the middle of all this.
With three generations of women on the stage, in a contemporary New England college town, the play is a theatrical survey of recent feminist history, revisiting themes that appeared in plays such as Caryl Churchill's 1982 Top Girls and Wendy Wasserstein's 1988 The Heidi Chronicles. But Rapture successfully reframes these same issues for the 21st century, so that it's an evolution of these ideas rather than a throwback.
The play's most remarkable feat, in conjunction with DuBois' tender production, is the wisdom of and amiability among characters whose lives have been lived in such stark counterpoint and yet have enough self-confidence and introspection to cheerfully embrace ideas espoused by their ideological opposites. In short, this is a play populated by grown-ups, and this alone is a rare pleasure. It's rare because, as my female colleague also has pointed out, grown-ups don't comprise much of our culture-at-large, and that lack is amply reflected in our current dramatic literature in acclaimed plays ranging from August: Osage County to God of Carnage.
It's true, Gionfriddo's characters may make plenty of messes through the play's action, but while they're making a hash of struggles they're aching to resolve, they remain dedicated to at least trying to remain civilized.
That dedication gets sorely tested but unlike, say, Edward Albee's college-town characters in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, these are people you'd actually enjoy spending an evening with — that is, if you had to be in the same room, as opposed to vicariously watching Virginia Woolf's domestic terrorism from across a theater's proscenium.
Four of Rapture's five characters have known each other for decades. These are the ambitious protagonist, 40-something Catherine Croll (the vivacious and endearing Amy Brenneman), and her former college roommate, Gwen Harper (Kellie Overbey, conveying world-weary smarts). Svelte Catherine, a scholar of feminism, aka “the hot doomsday chick,” has become a darling of the talk-show circuit and author of books on the politics of pornography, on Abu Ghraib's influence on the new, “sadistic media,” and on “the rise of degradation as entertainment.”
When she was in college, Cathy dated Don Harper (Lee Tergesen), now a pothead dean at a second-tier college. Their somewhat tawdry history is summarized in Cathy's line: “I went to London, he married my roommate.”
Financially struggling Dean Don and housewife Gwen now have two kids and an impoverished nest. Catherine comes swooping back to town with her flush bank account, after her mother, Alice (a lovely, spritely performance by Beth Dixon), suffered a major heart attack. Mom is the only family Cathy has. Cathy calculates from family history that her mom has maybe one year to live, and Cathy is facing the stern reality that the remainder of her life, from middle age to death, will be spent alone. Her ache for a family in general, and for Don in particular, has become primal. “We still mate like cave people,” she explains.
While marooned in New England, Cathy holds a seminar at mom's house on feminist history, attended by Gwen, Alice (who happily serves martinis) and the play's fifth character, who brings a 21st-century perspective to an otherwise familiar debate on gender roles. This would be Gwen's 26-year-old babysitter, Avery Willard (Virginia Kull).
Avery makes her first appearance with a black eye — was she beaten by her boyfriend? Kull's performance infuses Avery with eye-rolling sarcasm that's piercingly wise. She's also flummoxed by elder Alice's view that the syndrome of young women too easily “hooking up” with men removes men's incentive to make any commitments, or to grow up. It encourages and reinforces the very narcissism that my colleague, of Avery's generation, came to find so exasperating in her male counterparts.
In Cathy's seminar, topics slide from women's-choice advocate Betty Friedan to Phyllis Schlafly's belief that men should lead women — and all these female theorists get equal play, if not equal pay.
Cathy's fascination with torture porn stems from her own, highly un-PC fetishism — the kind of complication that allows the story to rise from being a dramatized lecture into being a drama.
Meanwhile, a life of domesticity with Don and the kids drove Gwen to drink. She's now a recovered alcoholic, which allows Don and Cathy to reunite over many drinks, without Gwen. Gwen yearns to escape to New York with her teen son, to have at least some of Cathy's freedom.
Rapture settles upon a fresh spin on the relationship between love, co-dependence, ambition and a bank account.
Among the finest moments is a scene in which Cathy tries to encourage Don to write a book that might actually take off. His resistance to that idea, and to her imposition of potential success upon his lost potential, is a masterful insight into the divide between those with ambition and those who have lost it. She loves him so much that she's eventually willing to embrace and encourage his mediocrity, though that concept leaves her completely confused.
Though the play's having-it-all themes may be a bit threadbare by now, the insight into ambition and its loss is all murky, perverse, fascinating stuff, and Gionfriddo goes in with a needle and lifts it like a splinter from beneath some collective psychic skin into the public air.
RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN | By Gina Gionfriddo | A Playwrights Horizons production at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd. | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through Sept. 22 | (310) 208-5454 | geffenplayhouse.com