Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Gina Gionfriddo examines the changing roles of women from the pre-Betty Friedan 1950s to the post-post-Feminist now in Rapture, Blister, Burn—and if this sounds like a potentially dry (i.e. boring) way to spend a night at the theater, think again. I haven’t had a more exhilarating time with four fabulous women and one not-so-fabulous man in I don’t know how long.

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Arriving at the Geffen Playhouse with the play’s New York director, cast, and design team intact, Rapture, Blister, Burn’s three generations of women women are 70something Alice (Beth Dixon), her 42-year-old daughter Catherine (Amy Brenneman), Cathy’s onetime college best friend Gwen (Kellie Overbey), and 21-year-old Avery (Virginia Kull), the latest babysitter hired by Gwen’s husband Don (Lee Tergesen) from amongst the misfit students he counsels at the New England college he calls home.

org_img_1376526109_L If Alice’s recent heart attack has served as her daughter’s pretext to abandon her New York City life and move back home with Mom, Cathy has other, less altruistic motives for the change of scene. Despite considerable success as a feminist writer (two published books and frequent TV appearances and speaking engagements), the still-single Cathy has begun to do some midlife soul searching—and more than a bit of pining for the man she let slip away.

That’s right. Just when things were becoming serious between them in grad school, Cathy opted for a year in London, breaking Don’s heart and sending him straight into Gwen’s eagerly waiting arms.

Now, fourteen or so years later, Gwen and Don are raising two boys, one thirteen and one three, and as the old song goes, “The Thrill is Gone” from their marriage. Once a passionate teacher, Don has come to enjoy the laid-back life his position as dean affords him, one that allows him plenty of time to drink his beers, smoke his weed, and enjoy his nightly dose of Internet porn while Gwen and their youngest watch kid-friendly DVDs and their teen listens to show tunes while dreaming of a future on the New York stage.

org_img_1376526628_L Don’s offer of a teaching job at his college allows Cathy to a) spend time with her thankfully recovering mom; b) try on the role of college prof; and c) rekindle romantic flames with Don, consequences be damned—or welcomed as the case may be.

With summer session just underway, it’s too late for Don to assign Cathy a regular class, but he does offer her a seminar on Women, Politics, and Porn, one she can teach from her mother’s home, conveniently located right next door to Don and Gwen’s.

Since Gionfriddo has kept her cast of characters down to the abovementioned five, it should come as no surprise that Cathy’s two lone students turn out to be Gwen and Avery, with Alice popping in from time to time to offer her older woman’s perspective … and abundant martinis to all but Gwen, the latter finally on the wagon after years of frequent imbibing.

Much of Act One involves the four women’s animated discussion of everyone and everything from Betty Friedan to Phyllis Schlafly to horror flicks (from sci fi to slasher to torture porn) to evolving male-female roles over the past six decades, and because each woman brings her own generation’s point of view (along with Gionfriddo’s snap-crackle-pop dialog) to the mix, these early scenes are the farthest thing from boring.

org_img_1376525522_L And once romantic/sexual sparks have begun to fly between Cathy and Don (as you just know they will), well hold on to your hats because it’s going to be a bumpy—and very entertaining—ride.

Combining the kind of lively debate you might hear on a particularly highly-charged episode of The View or Real Time with Bill Maher with romantic shenanigans that wouldn’t seem out of place on a daytime soap with the “what-if” appeal of a Swapping Lives flick, Rapture, Blister, Burn will keep you leaning forward in your seat as you await each new plot twist and turn … and paying extra close attention so as not to miss one smart, sassy line after another. As for the actors onstage, what a kick they must get from hearing the audience’s very audible reactions each night, from amusement to shock to delight … and everything in between.

Rapture, Blister, Burn arrives at the Geffen from New York’s Playwrights Horizons its director Peter DuBois and cast intact, and while a part of me can’t help wishing that L.A. actors had gotten their crack at these roles, there’s an equal part that revels at the chance to see TV/stage vet Brenneman and her gifted costars bring Gionfriddo’s characters to the same vivid, invigorating life as they did last summer in New York.

org_img_1376525703_L I love Alexander Dodge’s nifty scenic design, its blue-shingled walls parting to reveal terrific surprises as we move from Alice’s home to Don and Gwen’s back yard and back. Costume designer Mimi O’Donnell’s character-appropriate outfits, Jeff Croiter and Jake DeGroot’s vibrant lighting design, and M.L. Dogg’s energizing sound design are all top of the line.

Young Ji is production stage manager, Michael Vitale assistant stage manager, and John A Garofalo assistant lighting designer.

If ever there were a play equally enjoyable to audiences from their twenties to their senior years, Rapture, Blister, Burn is that play. Heck, I’ll bet even straight men will get a kick out of Gionfriddo’s women, even as they aver they’re nothing at all like slacker/stoner Don. I haven’t been more entertained (and intellectually stimulated) at a play all year than I was at Rapture, Blister, Burn.

Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.

–Steven Stanley
August 22, 2013
Photos: Michael Lamont

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