‘Rapture, Blister, Burn’ lacks emotional punch

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Gina Gionfriddo’s “Rapture, Blister, Burn,” now receiving its Chicago premiere at the Goodman Theatre, bears a scorching title. But the truth is, it is a glib (if frequently amusing), belief-stretching play about the evolution of feminism in recent decades. It is meant to be a comedy of manners, but it suffers from a major deficit: serious emotional shallowness. It lacks a real heart.

‘RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN’ Somewhat recommended When: Through Feb. 22 Where: Goodman Theater, 170 N. Dearborn Tickets: $25 – $81 Info: (312) 443-3800; goodmantheatre.org Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

Compare Gionfriddo’s play to Wendy Wasserstein’s seminal 1988 “feminist” drama, “The Heidi Chronicles,” and you will quickly realize that even in a comedy/satire, the lack of a genuine sense of pain and loss — the feeling that something very real is at stake —  results in characters who remain little more than ciphers.

As it happens, Gionfriddo’s greatest satirical gift is for unmasking the fraudulent (and laugh-inducing) array of academic studies that have grown up around feminism. She neatly harpoons the way “scholars” have sidestepped notions of the basic primal drives (yes, the cave man instinct), and the long-entrenched history of second class-citizenship for women, and have built careers on the most grotesquely mannered studies of “the politics of pornography,” with a changing media landscape also fueling certain habits.

The premise of this very “devised” play goes like this: After a separation of more than a decade, Catherine Croll (a deft turn by Jennifer Coombs), and fellow doctoral students Gwen Harper (Karen Janes Woditsch, who suppresses her usual alluring braininess), and her husband, Don (Mark L. Montgomery), have reunited in the New England college town where the Harpers now live with their children, ages 13 and 3.

All three adults have hit 40 and are restless. None of them “have it all,” and ultimately realize they might not really want it all, or are ill-equipped to bear such a load.

Catherine, the attractive, successful (unmarried and childless) author who has gained media attention with her sexually suggestive books about the changing face of feminist culture, has taken a sabbatical from her teaching job in New York to care for her mother, Alice (Mary Ann Thebus), who recently suffered a heart attack but turns out to be full of vim and vigor and piercing wit.

As it happens, Catherine also has contacted Don (and Montgomery is perfection in this role) about an adjunct teaching job at the small college where he, a classic underachiever, manages to hold on to a low-paying job as dean. The two were lovers years earlier, but when she went off on a fellowship to London, he married Gwen.

Now, Gwen has begun to chafe at her role as the classic stay-at-home mom and wife to a middle-aged man who drinks beer, smokes pot, watches the relatively mild porn of yesteryear, and has come to terms with his own lack of drive.

In a belief-stretching turn of events, Gwen and Avery (the Harpers’ whip-smart babysitter and exemplar of contemporary “hookup culture,” played with great zest and superb comic timing by Cassidy Slaughter-Mason) become the only students in a seminar led by Catherine, and held in her mom’s well-appointed apartment. (Jack Magaw’s fine set shifts from this traditional living room to the Harpers’ shabby patio, saying much in the process.)

The women’s sessions (in which Avery serves as an obvious mouthpiece for the playwright), are richly leavened by the periodic presence of Alice. And they are full of talk about how to get and hold a man, how movies have reflected attitudes towards women in the post-feminist age, and how pornography has become more virulent. They also revisit the ideas of such retro figures as Phyllis Schafly, the lawyer and conservative activist who, in the 1970s, was such an outspoken opponent of the Equal Rights Amendment  and the Roe v. Wade decision. Alice (and Thebus is hilarious, mischievously nailing every line) turns out to be the wisest of them all. (Schafly, now 90, must be crowing at the revisionist history here.)

Alice also applauds daughter Catherine, who feels her life is empty, as she launches into an adolescent-like affair with Don and eventually “switches lives” with Gwen, who goes off to live in her usurper’s New York apartment. (There is more.)

Kimberly Senior, making her Goodman debut on the heels of directing “Disgraced” on Broadway, has captured the blunt rhythms of the play, but she can’t fill in the blanks left by Gionfriddo. Ironically, it is Don, the sole man here, who ends up getting it all — a few weeks of a wild sexual romp and a return to his comfortable level of passivity. The women, despite suggestions otherwise, got what they needed, if not exactly what they thought they wanted. Apologies Mick Jagger.

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