The poster artwork for Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn at Playwrights Horizons features a paper doll cut-out of Rosie the Riveter in underclothes; to her right is her usual bicep-baring get-up, and to the left is an outfit replete with modern mom jeans and a crying baby around which her usually fisted arm is wrapped.
Devised by Sam Hendricks, it’s the perfect image to encapsulate Gionfriddo’s play, which is likely to fuel impassioned feminist arguments and which does a mostly wonderful job illustrating the progress of women’s rights, which can alternately be described as baby steps or leaps and bounds, since the early days of the movement in the 1960s, when the two sides of the feminist coin were women’s-libber Betty Friedan and stay-at-homer Phyllis Schlafly.
In Rapture, the play begins in the New England backyard of Gwen (Kellie Overbey) and Don (Lee Tergesen), a married couple who met at university when Don, now a stagnating college dean, was an impassioned intellectual with potential. Catherine (Amy Brenneman) has come home because of her mother Alice’s failing health, and she’s reconnected with Gwen and Don in an attempt to patch up old wounds (Gwen had taken Don from Catherine when Catherine went to Paris to study) and in the hopes of landing a job at Don’s college.
Land one she does. Catherine, who’s become a nationally recognized scholar and author, appearing occasionally on TV as an expert on the ethics of pornography, is hired on by Don to teach a summer class on women’s rights that ends up consisting of only two students: Gwen, who enrolls in the class on a lark, and Gwen’s independently-minded former babysitter Avery (Virginia Kull), who is also a student at the college, a set-up that comes off as a bit of a plot contrivance.
You see, these small classes, which take on the feel of salons, are held in Catherine’s house, where her mother Alice (Beth Dixon) drolly mixes the martinis and the teacher and her students are left to expound on women’s rights, via Friedan and Schlafly, and discuss their romantic failings. These conversations serve both to enliven the play with real passion but also to laden it down with didactics. Intellectual talk occasionally veers toward real character insight, but despite a lively plot devised by Gionfriddo, the characters here only occasionally feel three-dimensional. More often than not, they feel like lively, funny, often entertaining, but ultimately underdeveloped signposts.
Amy Brenneman of TV’s Judging Amy, is the most commanding presence here as Catherine. Brenneman tackles the role with a real sense of intelligence and ambivalence as she reaches midlife with a sense of romantic failure and ponders her options as a passionate, career-driven woman who nonetheless struggles with the fact that she’s still on her own. As Gwen, Kellie Overbey is less successful. She’s able to land a joke but invests her character with fewer insights overall. The problem may partly lie in Gionfriddo’s script, which paints Gwen, a typical suburban housewife, with broader brushstrokes.
At the center of the play’s love triangle is Lee Tergesen as Don, the object of both Gwen and Catherine’s affections. The only man in the cast, he’s the perfect guy to play against both the intellectual woman-on-the-go with a secret yen for domesticity and a housewife with a firm grasp on her husband’s to-do list but a desire, occasionally, for a little excitement in the city.
Eventually, in a funny twist, the women decide to switch lives, yielding entertaining results as both women struggle to invert their own chosen fates. Gwen finds herself enrolled in college courses in New York City, the oldest woman in the class, while Catherine, who develops a relationship with Don, attempts to set up house in New England with him only to realize that all-night movie marathons and late-night meals are only exciting for so long when the unmotivated man of her dreams won’t take any of her suggestions for book topics to heart and start writing anything.
Still, despite some crafty choices on the part of Ms. Gionfriddo and brisk direction from Peter DuBois, the play feels more well-constructed – a great idea executed with precision – than truly lively. Along the way, it cracks a joke at the expense of the Ya Ya Sisterhood mentality that has permeated pop culture of late but, for all its intelligence, Rapture occasionally veers in its nemesis’s direction, right toward the heart of the Ya Ya, where it finds itself an uncomfortable fit despite its strengths.