Playwright Gina Gionfriddo originally sat down to write a play about pornography. Instead she gave us Rapture, Blister, Burn, a work that explores the gamut of feminist responses to pornography but seems at a loss when it comes to human beings. We watch women across three generations of the feminist movement search for answers to their unhappiness, only to seem just as dazed and confused in the end as when they began.
Three of the lucky humans wrapped up in all this are Catherine, Don, and Gwen, who went to grad school together. Catherine’s gone on to bigger, brighter things, leaving Gwen and Don married to each other, with few accomplishments and even less sex. But it was Catherine and Don who first dated in grad school, and now, returning home following her mother’s heart attack, Catherine finds herself missing Don and musing over a new domestic life.
Coming off her Broadway debut with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced, director Kimberly Senior has an eye for small, meaningful movements onstage. Like Gwen removing Don’s baseball hat indoors—just another child in her life who needs tending. Or the quickness with which Catherine defends Gwen as Gwen’s lifestyle gets relentlessly derided during a tension-filled debate over The Feminine Mystique.
Perhaps the show’s biggest flaw is Mark L. Montgomery’s slovenly, unambitious Don. Somewhere, underneath Don’s lack of drive, there must be the compelling Walt Whitman Catherine fell for in her 20s. We need to believe he’s someone for whom Catherine’s willing to sacrifice her professional life, and Montgomery seems more intent on grinding out character tics than on responding honestly onstage.
But the play doesn’t skimp on funny, with much of that coming from Catherine’s mom, Alice (played with Betty White-like charm by Mary Ann Thebus), and constantly cursing 21-year-old babysitter Avery (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason).
The humor and humanity are there, but the stakes never rise high enough. Don leaves Gwen for Catherine, then leaves Catherine just as easily as his wife. Within the realm of the play, adultery and lying are treated casually and without consequence. Part of the problem lies with all the feminist theory—it’s interesting, but there’s too much of it, and the characters, and what drives them, get lost.
Moreover, rather than challenge a patriarchal system, the women of Rapture, Blister, Burn instead seem hell-bent on the same privileges as the white males who came before them, including the right to marry whom they want, have promiscuous sex if they choose, and discard those who no longer serve to stimulate them. In the end, they don’t know what they want because they can’t seem to envision a women’s world not firmly rooted in patriarchal values. And this, surely, is the greatest burn.