Despite its promisingly incendiary title, Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn offers itself more as a calmative than a catalyst, a two-act reprise of the familiar ‘can a woman have it all?’ conundrum resolved with (spoiler alert) a warm-hearted embracing of ‘well, maybe not, but..perhaps only because no-one can.”
Still, Rapture does enough to hold our attention with its story of simple, recognisable human failings, even if Gionfriddo’s grapplings with the heavies of feminist theory are mostly lightweight, and its conclusions can seem inoffensive to the point of glib sentimentality.
The plot concerns wildly successful academic Cathy (Emilia Fox), often painfully referred to as a ‘sexy scholar’, returning home to care for her ailing but vivacious mother Alice (Polly Adams), and partake in an initially awkward reunion with her now-married friends, old flame Don (Adam James) and estranged best friend, Gwen (Emma Fielding). In keeping with Jonathan Fensom’s detailed and elegant set, the story is a somewhat slick and schematic thing. We witness the entanglement of opposing lives, as homely suburban housewife Gwen and Cathy, an academic rock star in her stilettos and leather jacket, half-heartedly re-start their rivalry over Don. Perhaps you’d expect chaotic emotional uproar but, though Peter Dubois’ measured direction makes this a clean and commendably understated production, the plot-threads fall into place a little too perfectly, a jigsaw puzzle too easily assembled to be intriguing.
Betty Friedan and Phyliss Schafly have as much stage-time as the four central female characters, who serve essentially as exemplar case studies in which the theories can cosily play themselves out. Cathy runs a summer seminar on feminism and popular culture, a class which takes place in her home because Gwen and her foulmouthed, liberated ex-baby-sitter Avery (Shannon Tarbet) are the only attendees.
Cue a series of gentle debate scenes which, though genuinely informative, function more as a highly listen-able panel talk than anything richly theatrical. Whilst we’re rewarded with some chat-show style revelations about Gwen and Cathy’s parallel dissatisfactions, it’s only when theory and practice mercilessly collide – when detached discussion touches on raw reality – that we get a glimpse of the play that Rapture, Blister, Burn keeps falling short of being. When the undeniable utopianism of theory imposes its limits, a riled Cathy demands “how are two empowered people meant to navigate this fantastic equality!?”, inciting much laughter that cannily conceals our inability to answer.
By the second act, Gwen and Cathy have apparently pulled off their longed-for life-swap, except, of course, they haven’t. Here, the play wanders into rom-com territory, and there are some distasteful altruisms bandied around – men and women don’t understand each other, men don’t want strong women, women don’t watch porn, etc – a mocking take on all of our lazy gender assumptions than homespun wisdom, it seems, but it’s played with an odd lack of irony.
Still, the strangely unsatisfying piece is bolstered by some stand-out performances: Adam James is very nearly too likeable as the shambolical charmer and serial disappointment Don, a dead-beat dean prone to desperate hand gestures and non-committal vowel sounds, signs of a man eager to let life slide, yet anguished to see it go. Shannon Tarbet shines as straight-talking student Avery, and though her swaggering naiveties are often a punchline, Tarbet retains a cool dignity, an air of insouciant, deadpan wisdom, spitting out nuggets of pure gold like she’s simply stating the obvious, even if her status as ‘the young one’ means she’s doomed to pepper fiercely intellectual critique with generic expletives. Emma Fielding has less room to manoeuvre subtly with the often histrionic Gwen, but Emilia Fox gives the least generous performance, never quite convincing as the originator of radical thought but in the second act, enlivened by the summer affair, she brings a kind of brittle sensuality to her previously impassive Cathy.
The script is surprisingly quick-moving considering its condensing of hefty academic material, often sharply observant courtesy of Avery, with a kind of every(wo)man poetry running through it (“If your soul’s okay, what’s your problem?”). It’s also consistently funny, even if the jokes are well-worn or visible from space, it’s difficult not to warm to even these lightly-sketched characters. They are well-meaning people, blundering along with their little idiocies and triumphs – but as such there’s nothing to enrapture, blister or burn you here. “You’re not very good feminists, are you?” teases Alice when both Cathy and Avery are in tears over their respective heartbreaks, a wry reminder that ‘feminist’ is probably one of the most widely-misused words in the English language, as well as an unfortunate highlighting of that old ‘first world problem’ problem.
In the final scene, the three women toast to new-found freedom – and to consider it a little more cynically, it’s a wholly self-congratulatory conclusion. Heartbreak healed, now Cathy and Avery will move to NYC, roll around in Cathy’s money and sleep with whomever they wish, because that is what we are free to do as modern, independent women and really, who cares, right, because it’s all about choice anyway. In fact, you could level the same criticisms at this play as have been aimed at feminist discourse in general – an affluent, Western pastime, full of privileged camaraderie, all talk and not too much to show for it – a pat on the back rather than the kick in the head I’d have liked it to be.