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Rapture, Blister, Burn Smolders at Geffen Playhouse

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Rapture, Blister, Burn, at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, is a clever, gentle-hearted take on feminism today by playwright Gina Gionfriddo. Its charming if artificially crafted plot examines the lives of four women (in three generations) who bond while the younger three participate in a classroom survey on the history of feminism. We're in a liberated America, but the point of the play is to expose the frequent clash between instinct and intellect as women enjoy the fruits of modernity while dealing with men who rarely conform to the supposed advances of a post-feminist America.

The play's women conveniently fit into stereotypes: 40-something stifled mother and housewife, her recently fired 20-something babysitter, a liberated single 40-something author and her wise-cracking mother. As intellectual foil, the shadowy specter of social-conservative author Phyllis Schlafly, historically resistant to the ERA, hovers like a doppelgänger over the story to trump fuzzy feminist utopias at every opportunity.

Gwen (Kellie Overbey), a traditional housewife, is bored with husband Don (Lee Tergesen, photo at top), a low-achieving, pot-smoking, porn-watching academic who long before had settled for a dean's position rather than face the challenge of writing his always postponed tome. (The similar weak male academic in Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe comes to mind). A momentarily bored Gwen plots to jettison her domestic stability for an uncertain freedom; she sets up Don's old flame to lure him away.

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Catherine (Amy Brenneman, at top and above) is that flame, a wildly successful women's author who conveniently now teaches the history of feminism to Gwen and her baby-sitter, Avery (Virginia Kull, above), the latter with the black-eyed evidence of an abusive boyfriend and an uncanny way of seeing through both the posturing cant of Catherine and the hypocrisy of Gwen. Helping things along, Catherine's mother Alice (Beth Dixon) is a kind of Golden Girl realist recovering from a heart attack who spouts pithy observations while serving up martinis to lubricate the women for further self-revelations.

Hiding behind her success but feeling cheated in life by a lack of a sustained male relationship, Catherine readily reignites the flame she once had with Don, though he (and we) initially think he's the initiator of the infidelity. They exhaust their rekindled heat in short order when Catherine's talented ambition confronts Don's passive mediocrity. The moment she eggs him on to write the book he had long since emotionally abandoned but nominally not given up, he wilts under the challenge.

You may have guessed where all this leads. Certain gal pals may eventually team up for new adventures while certain domestics may regroup in the realization and relief that they're not cut out for ambitious work (which anyway may just be sublimation for the lack of a steady squeeze).

Brenneman's Catherine traverses the greatest emotional territory, grappling with an existential lack of fulfillment as she wallows in her empty material and social success. Her wall of self-reliant confidence starts to crumble at the prospect of losing her mother and comes down faster than Jericho's at the prospect of gaining Don back. Stage and screen veteran Brenneman handles these chameleon mood shifts instinctively and seamlessly.

Kull, an actor's triumph as the sharp-tongued contempo update of a 90's Valley Girl, stole the show for me. Her Avery breezily punctured with incisive charm every stereotypical feminist role model Gionfriddo packed into this play. Dixon's pithy Golden Girl was another hoot, getting some of Gionfriddo's best one-liners. Overbey and Tergesen made the most of their somewhat shop-worn but still empathetic domestic-couple personas.

No great revelations here, but a refreshingly un-pompous mirror on having-it-all pretensions. Life for women would seem to require choices, but in this play the options remain open for a pretty good ride in or out of a male saddle.

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Rapture, Blister, Burn, a play by Gina Gionfriddo
Gil Cates Theater of Geffen Playhouse in Westwood (Los Angeles)
Production run: August 13 - September 22, 2013
Performance reviewed: September 5, 2013

Directed by Peter DuBois
Set Designer, Alexander Dodge
Costume Designer, Mimi O'Donnell
Lighting Designer, Jeff Croiter and Jake DeGroot
Sound Designer, M.L. Dogg

Above photos by Michael Lamont courtesy of Geffen Playhouse
Top: Lee Tergesen and Amy Brenneman
Middle: Virginia Kull and Brenneman