Playwright Gina Gionfriddo’s comedy-drama “Rapture, Blister, Burn” at Capital Stage feels a lot like a mini seminar in introductory feminist theory. Actually, the nominal second act of the play really is a seminar in feminism, with a syllabus, discussion questions, and homework assignments.
As exciting as that may sound – depending on how much bullet-point discussion you prefer with your drama – it’s not nearly as compelling as many well-argued dinner conversations, and that point really has nothing to do with one’s feelings about feminism and everything to do with one’s feelings about theater. It might as well have been a lecture on the evolution of Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. It still would have been a largely static lecture.
Gionfriddo is the author of the finely nuanced play “Becky Shaw,” and she has also written for the television police procedurals “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” and “Cold Case,” along with the political satire “House of Cards.” Here, she takes up the age-old questions of what constitutes happiness and is the grass really greener on the other side, with traditional and non-traditional women’s roles focusing the story. Shannon Mahoney’s understanding direction gives the production as much dynamism as the dialectics could hope for, and the well-cast five-person ensemble showed terrific timing while mining a fruitful vein of laughs from the often-jokey material.
Analyzing feminism takes center stage because Catherine (Megan Pearl Smith), the hypotenuse of the play’s central romantic triangle, teaches and writes about various aspects of women’s studies. She’s left New York and come home to somewhere in New England for the summer because her mother, Alice (Phoebe Moyer), recently had a heart attack. Being back puts Catherine awkwardly in the sphere of married old friends Gwen (Kelley Ogden) and Don (Sam Misner). Don was once Catherine’s boyfriend and Gwen was her roommate, but Catherine took a year of college in London and everything changed.
Don, once a promising instructor, has become a dullish, pot-smoking, porn-watching dean at the local third-rate college. Apparently pot smoking among East Coast white-upper-middle-class intelligentsia has reached crisis proportions while becoming New York playwright shorthand for “comic slacker dude.” Gwen, who never finished her degree, is a stay-at-home mom with two kids. Catherine has thrived professionally, having gone on to become a published author, an occasional Bill Maher panelist, and all-around celebrity intellectual on women’s issues. All are unhappy and covet something they don’t have and think someone else does.
So the feminist arguments can have proper generational perspectives, Gionfriddo adds Avery (Madilyn Cooper), one of Don’s former students, to the mix. Feminism becomes the straight woman for Avery’s new-generation comic putdowns of the movement’s shortcomings. In her matter-of-fact, third-wave view, she summarizes Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” with: “She said basically women have been sold a bill of goods that being a housewife and a mom is fulfilling when it is so totally not.”
With Gwen and family representing one oft-traveled road for women, and Catherine and her career representing another, the idea of what might have been pushes the characters’ interactions through the play. Ironically, each woman wants the other’s life, at least in theory. When the switch occurs, the new reality carries a sobering sensibility.
Ogden’s bright, clever energy makes a welcome return to the Sacramento stage with her flighty, neurotic Gwen as a fine counterpoint to Smith’s assured, womanly Catherine. Misner’s excellent as the slothful Don, while Cooper and Moyer are effective as opposite ends of the generational spectrum.
While feminism godmother Friedan naturally gets her due, conservative Phyllis Schlafly (an Equal Rights Amendment opponent) receives ample time and consideration. Though Gionfriddo positions “Rapture, Blister, Burn” as a comedy, it’s hard not to see the outcomes she creates for her characters as at least disappointing, even though life lessons are learned.
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.
Rapture, Blister, Burn
What: Sacramento premiere of the play by Gina Gionfriddo, directed by Shannon Mahoney.
Where: 2215 J St., Sacramento
When: Continues 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through April 12.
Tickets: $18-$20 previews; opening $34-$40, remainder of run, $22-$38.
Information: (916) 995-5464, www.capstage.org
Time: Two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.