The whip-smart Rapture, Blister, Burn could have gone very wrong very easily. The plot features a college seminar titled “The Fall of American Civilization,” invoking the ideas of Betty Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly, Carol J. Clover and Nancy Friday, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and even the esteemed Dr. Phil, but the play—a 2013 Pulitzer nominee—doesn’t feel like a lecture. The four women at its center, representing three generations and dramatically different life paths, could have become cardboard cutouts standing in for Big Feminist Ideas. That the characters breathe and bend is a testament to Gina Gionfriddo’s propulsive, timely, often gut-laugh-eliciting script and the talents in the Huntington Theatre Company’s current production at the BCA’s Calderwood Pavilion.
Those characters include Catherine, a driven 40-something academic who’s forged a high-powered career in New York critiquing pop culture, from porn to reality TV. But she’s taken a sabbatical from her “sexy scholar gig,” coming home to a New England college town to be with her mother, the sweet, sensible, plain-spoken Alice (played with impeccable comic timing by Nancy E. Carroll), a widowed homemaker who’s recovering from a heart attack but still serves martinis at five o’clock and frets over her daughter’s love life—or lack thereof.
After an epic drunk dial, Catherine reconnects with Alice’s neighbors, two key players from her past: her grad-school roommate, Gwen, now a high-strung stay-at-home mom of two who recently “gave up drinking and took up talking,” and Gwen’s husband, Don—who dated Catherine until he took up with Gwen during the former’s fellowship abroad 15 years ago. Once a passionate teacher, he’s now a pot-smoking assistant dean operating on autopilot, finding himself “jerking off to the computer while [his] family watches Toy Story.”
Also in the mix is Gwen and Don’s ex-babysitter, Avery, a 21-year-old coed who’s making a reality show with her wannabe-auteur boyfriend. She and Gwen become the only students in Catherine’s impromptu summer seminar course. Its martini-fueled discussions around Alice’s coffee table reveal how Catherine and Gwen covet each other’s lives and doubt the choices they’ve made, much to the bewilderment of Avery, who marvels, “You have a career and wind up lonely and sad, or you have a family and wind up lonely and sad.” Act two gives Catherine and Gwen a chance to find out how the other half lives, and while the Wife Swap-style setup sometimes strains credulity, the payoff is an exploration of the yet-unresolved issues of the women’s movement that plays out with more wit and nuance than much of our current dialogue about “having it all.” It’s no wonder the production’s run was extended through June 30th by popular demand. Catch it if you can.