A play that ends with a toast to antifeminist Phyllis Schlafly – not entirely in mockery – has audacity going for it, if nothing else. But Gina Gionfriddo’s “Rapture, Blister, Burn” has satisfying conversations about what women want and how likely they are to get it.
In this comedy at UpStage, what two 40-ish women want is Don (Bill Reilly). He’s underachieving, porn-happy, pot-addicted and selfish. But wife Gwen (Anne Lambert) has grown used to him, and mutual friend Catherine (Caroline Renfro) still sees the dynamo she thought she knew in grad school.
The play’s title comes from a Hole song about envy, and that’s a key theme.
Catherine, a respected and much-traveled academic, hasn’t had a sustained relationship in years and wonders what it would be like to settle down with a man and a child. Gwen thinks she might prefer her old friend’s life, basing herself in New York and immersing herself in culture. Alice, Catherine’s mother (Ginny Darcey), and college student Avery (Karina Roberts-Caporino) provide perspectives from generations older and younger.
Like the famous poem about the blind men and the elephant, each has ideas about relationships that have kernels of wisdom but no universal application.
Alice thinks a man wants a weak partner who makes him feel strong. Avery declares, at least at first, that self-expression has primary importance. Don, meanwhile, waits off to the side for a partner who will let him remain the loser he has become. (Reilly captures this amiable loafer, but he’s frequently inaudible.)
Gionfriddo employs a clunky device to get arguments rolling: Catherine teaches a summer course about feminism and pop culture, with Gwen and Avery (Gwen’s former babysitter, whom she fired) as her only students. Once you accept that idea, you can enjoy the deconstruction of cultural touchstones and heated arguments about male-female connections.
Director-designer Sarah Provencal first did this production by Charlotte’s Off-Broadway at Warehouse PAC, so she’s used to small spaces. She exploits UpStage smartly, distinguishing between Gwen’s porch and the home Catherine shares with her mother. Only exits provide an insoluble but minor problem.
Though the play initially seems to be a psychological battle between the two middle-aged women, Gwen’s character recedes. That’s no fault of the fiery Lambert; Gionfriddo’s unsympathetic to Gwen and leaves her alone for long stretches.
Soon we realize this is the story of the discontented Catherine and even more of Avery, who sometimes hopes and sometimes fears she’ll turn into this lonely but acclaimed academic. Renfro and Roberts-Caporino nail that surrogate mother-daughter vibe in all its uncomfortable intimacy.
‘Rapture, Blister, Burn’
Charlotte’s Off-Broadway does Gina Gionfriddo’s play about a homemaker and a rock-star academic who covet each other’s lives.
WHEN: Through April 26 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday.
WHERE: UpStage, 3306 N. Davidson St.
TICKETS: $15 advance, $20 at the door.
RUNNING TIME: 135 minutes.
DETAILS: 704-430-4821 or upstagenoda.com.