NEW YORK — Men and women are still mating "like cave people," and modern relationships are "just an exercise in illusions." These are just a couple of many comical conclusions in Gina Gionfriddo's new, roaringly funny satire on the effect of Internet porn on gender politics, the women's movement and way-post-feminism, and the fate of Western civilization.
Titled "Rapture, Blister, Burn," the piercingly sharp, bittersweet social comedy that opened Tuesday night off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons is also about the self-delusions of people ruefully questioning the youthful life choices they made. It's crisply and deftly staged by Peter DuBois, who, despite the clever, debate-filled script, also allows the pacing lulls necessary for Gionfriddo's characters to speak volumes with silently exchanged glances.
Through the attitudes of three generations of intelligent women and the husband of one of them – a once-promising scholar turned unambitious, pothead college dean – the comedy mocks academia, but primarily hones in on post-1970s feminism and the resulting societal backlashes that include varieties of horror-movie porn.
Gionfriddo, a 2009 Pulitzer Prize finalist for "Becky Shaw," smoothly lampoons women's notions of modern freedom and independence, in part by examining a huge generational divide. The most battered concept is the notion that modern women can have both a successful career and a husband. And the eternal confusion continues over "What do (men and) women want?"
Catherine, a successful but lonely academic and author, (a highly expressive Amy Brenneman, star of TV shows "Private Practice" and "Judging Amy") is beginning to experience "that 40-something thing where you start thinking about the life not lived." She reunites with her grad school ex-boyfriend and her roommate, carefree, unambitious Don and restless stay-at-home mom Gwen, (excellent performances by Lee Tergesen and Kellie Overbey). They married 14 years ago while Cathy was away in London at a yearlong fellowship, and she's finally forgiven their betrayal.
Don and Gwen now have two sons and conveniently live next door to Cathy's mother, Alice, (a spunky Beth Dixon). Alice's recovery from a recent heart attack has brought Cathy home from her glamorous New York City life to the archetypical "New England college town," where Don employs her to teach a feminist-oriented graduate course based on her scholarly work, titled "The Fall of American Civilization."
Snarky 21-year-old Avery, Don and Gwen's opinionated baby sitter, (an accomplished, hilarious, scene-stealing embodiment by Virginia Kull), simply cannot understand societal concepts that pre-date her life and the Internet, like shame over sexual promiscuity, or having to slink into a store in person to actually purchase pornographic videos.
Improbably, Gwen and Cathy soon enter into battle over Don, as they switch roles and try out each other's lives. Meanwhile, Avery is chagrined that her formerly "hooked up exclusively" boyfriend has unfortunately started "like, connecting with hearts and minds" with another girl, and she's further aghast when Alice wryly informs her that the old adage remains true, "No one buys the cow if he can get the milk for free."
Watching Kull contort her face in amazed horror at these antiquated notions is great fun, as is Brenneman's character's gradual decline from cool feminist academic into full-blown, man-hungry, lovesick mode, as both her mother and Avery conspire to help manipulate Don into her arms for good.
Part of a shingled wall on designer Alexander Dodge's beautifully gliding set appears scorched, perhaps in reference to the caveman-and-his-campfire concept that keeps creeping in to bely the women's modern ideas. Avery's youthful optimism and Alice's seasoned hindsight help temper Cathy's midlife loneliness, as when Avery reminds her about the surviving "final girl" in slasher movies. "That guy who comes in and saves the girl in the end? He might not be coming. But the girl is still gonna be OK."