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'Rapture, Blister, Burn' Ignites Discussion On The Evolution Of Feminism

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Many times when I've heard a show I'm going to see described as "a play of ideas," it turns out that I'm getting to sit through a thinly disguised lecture, a master's thesis with actors. For every playwright who handles this sort of thing brilliantly, such as Tom Stoppard, there are dozens who mistake exposition for theatre. Happily, Gina Gionfriddo is one of the former type of playwrights, and her Rapture, Blister, Burn is a show that blends its discussion of changing views of feminism over the last several decades with a compelling story. The current production at the Geffen Playhouse, which is the transplanted Playwrights Horizons production from New York, is thoughtful, hilarious and seems definitive.

Famed feminist author Catherine (Amy Brenneman) has moved back to her old New England town to take a teaching job at a local college. She's gotten this job through her ex-boyfriend Don (Lee Tergesen), who is the dean. Don is married to Catherine's ex-housemate Gwen (Kellie Overbey), who seems very happy to have her old friend back in town. She's so happy that she is one of only two students who sign up to attend Catherine's summer seminar, the other being her young ex-babysitter Avery (Virginia Kull). Catherine, however, isn't that happy with her life in general and is beginning to wonder if what she's missing is Don.

Brenneman brings wry humor and underlying low-key desperation to Catherine, who's had great success in her career but feels unfulfilled in her personal life. Overbey adds depth to the emotional but ultimately pragmatic Gwen, and Beth Dixon is delightful as Catherine's old-fashioned but open-minded mother Alice. Tergesen projects amiability and intelligence as the selfish, if not villainous Don. Finally, Kull steals the show as the precocious Avery in a thoroughly winning performance, which is all the more amazing considering that hers is the least credible character in the play.

Peter DuBois' direction is crisp and professional, and he stages the multiple locations of the story efficiently. Gionfriddo's writing is sharp and funny, but her most impressive achievement is how she matches the topic she wants to discuss within the characters and plot of the play. All four of the female characters represent a different facet of female experience, from the careerist to the homemaker, from the older woman of the pre-feminism era to the young woman of the "post-feminist" generation, and the conversation that ensues as they share their collected insights, while a bit didactic, is also fascinating. Alexander Dodge's grey-shingled home set, with its multiple slide-in locations, is splendidly versatile.

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"Rapture, Blister, Burn" runs at the Geffen Playhouse through Sept. 22. Tickets are available online.