Monday, June 10, 2013

Rapture, blister . . . yawn . . .

A toast to feminist theory - and Kate Shindle, Nancy E. Carroll, and Shannon Esper. Photos: T. Charles Erickson.

It's hard to get excited about Gina Gionfriddo's Rapture, Blister, Burn (through June 30) despite the obvious skill of the Huntington production because, well . . . basically, we've heard everything this playwright has to say many times before. Indeed, the play's predictability is what makes the slickness of director Peter DuBois' packaging possible - as every idea in the script is basically set in cultural stone, it can all be tweaked and polished to a high gloss. This conventionality is also what will make the show a hit with - well, the Huntington crowd, for lack of a better word; the play seems to exist almost as a vehicle for its marketing.

I think criticism is sort of beside the point in cases like this. I mean, there's nothing here to explain, and somewhere deep inside, the audience for Rapture, Blister, Burn knows that everything in it is sentimental, and politically pretty much beside the point - but they like it anyway, and that's that; part of their identity is bound up in liking it. The play is a product of the Paula Vogel playwriting factory, which once operated at Brown, but has outsourced production to Yale - and which has long had its finger on the pulse of liberal (and liberal-artsy) angst. (Gionfriddo and DuBois both got on Vogel's assembly line back in her days at Brown, btw.)

Now Vogel has unleashed a lot of bad playwriting on the world - but I had hopes that Gionfriddo might break her mentor's mold; her earlier script, Becky Shaw, seemed to subvert the pieties of the Brown assembly line, and evinced at least some sympathy with its male anti-hero.  Alas, in Rapture, Gionfriddo retreats back into the yada-yada sisterhood - it's largely a literal post-feminist coffee klatch; and though it still makes a few faux stabs at the bleeding heart of liberalism, it doesn't draw nearly as much blood as Becky Shaw did.  Still, the playwright gets off plenty of witty quips - so if you're not in a demanding mood, and like to shout "Woo-hoo!" when you agree with something a character has said, then this could be for you, even if in the end the play comes off as sitcom (it's certainly not drama, and certainly not comedy); and not even top-drawer sitcom, at that (30 Rock was consistently better than this).

The essence of the sitcom, of course, is its situation (hence situation-comedy), which must hold constant through repeated episodes of seeming variation, ensuing discussion, and final return to the mean (basically, in drama and comedy, things can change; in sitcom, they can't).  Gionfriddo hews closely (if a bit awkwardly) to this blueprint - so closely she can even work in jokes about Disney movies she's cribbing from.
Her theme is that perennial post-feminist question, "Why can't I have it all?" (Note that no male hero, and I mean none, has ever asked, "Why can't I have it all?") But Gionfriddo's heroine, an awesomely-Camille-Paglia-like (but heterosexual!) academic named Catherine Croll (Kate Shindle) is prone to saying that kind of thing a lot, particularly as she's having second thoughts about her super-successful, but lonely, life - ever since her awesomely-Estelle-Getty-like mother (our own Nancy E. Carroll), with whom she shares her one-and-only functioning relationship, just had her first heart attack.

You're not much, but you're all I've got.  Timothy John Smith and Kate Shindle in Rapture, Blister, Burn.

What happens next requires several suspensions of disbelief, and is very slow in coming anyhow: Catherine all but moves in with mom, and settles in to teach a summer seminar at a nearby college where a former flame, Don (Timothy John Smith) is a dean.  Don's wife, Gwen (Annie McNamara), is also a former friend - who years ago stole Don from Catherine, and traded in her career plans for what she hoped would be domestic bliss. So before you can say Freaky Friday, the two are plotting a wacky husband-swap - while downing martinis sent in specially from Sex in the City - just to see if the grass is really greener on the other side of the fence.

If that all sounds pre-determined and overly schematic - well, it is.  But Gionfriddo spends so much time in Croll's third-wave-feminist seminar, she hardly has the stage time to construct a plausible plot. Still, the gaps in her dramatic logic loom: Don is portrayed as a pot- and porn-addicted schlub; yet somehow Catherine thinks he's her only romantic option; and conveniently, the only people who show up at her seminar are, believe it or not, Gwen and her babysitter (so the personal can literally become the political).  And as for that babysitter - wouldn't any restless, forty-something pothead run off with the au pair before he'd even look at the middle-aged woman who dropped him twenty years ago?

But I digress . . . into something like real life, but never mind . . . all of these sitcom shenanigans (at the Huntington, scene changes are even punctuated by Saved-by-the-Bell-like guitar riffs) only exist as a scaffold on which Gionfriddo can drape a mildly pointed discussion of Phyllis Schlafly and other post-feminist reactionaries.  And you know what - it turns out Phyllis had a point; she knew the old dispensation was largely constructed to contain the male id, and provide for stable families against long odds. And now that we're some fifty years into the feminist revolution, men are waiting longer and longer to tie the knot, the objectification and abuse of women in porn has gone off the charts, and mothers commonly have their first child well before they're married.

And okay, maybe all this fall-out is the fault of men. (I'm not saying it isn't.) But what Gionfriddo can't, or won't, address in her drama is that these debits on the feminist ledger are often falling across the class divide. Privileged, college-educated women have benefited from feminism's gains enormously - but for lower-class, under-educated women, child-rearing and domesticity now exist almost in a state of siege. So tellingly, Gionfriddo keeps all her characters safely middle-class (and safely white), and turns the children embroiled in the break-up (and subsequent make-up) of Gwen and Don's marriage into faceless abstractions; we never even see them. Apparently all this consciousness-raising must occur in a post-adolescent vacuum - otherwise it might prove less than emotionally convincing.

Still, within the limits of the feminist echo chamber, Gionfriddo proves witty, and the production is always mildly entertaining (and never actually irritating) thanks to the spot-on performances of a highly capable cast.  Kate Shindle somehow keeps Catherine sympathetic even when she's coolly toying with the idea of breaking up a marriage, while Annie McNamara hints at complicated reserves of damaged emotion within the sphinx-like Gwen (by far the most interesting, and under-written, character in the play).  The reliable Timothy John Smith likewise makes the smut-addicted, reefer-mad Don never less than, well, likable (we're quite glad when he saves himself from Catherine's driven clutches), and Shannon Esper puts a confident, innocent spin on the libertarian cant of the millennial babysitter. Meanwhile Nancy E. Carroll, bless her heart, seems to embody and satirize the Estelle Getty role at the same time.  Director DuBois' touch is light, but firm, and Alexander Dodge's set design is elegant, even if it hints at an ironic concept the script doesn't quite support.  All these talented people almost managed to convince me that this was a play worth doing, rather than just a chunk of high-quality Huntington product.  So here's to them.  Woo-hoo.

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