'Rapture, Blister, Burn'

Amy Brenneman, left, Kellie Overbey and Virginia Kull exchange ideas in "Rapture, Blister, Burn." (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles Times / August 10, 2013)

To judge by appearances, Catherine is a roaring success. A celebrated New York academic who still fits into her skinny jeans, she's dubbed the "hot doomsday chick" when she appears on Bill Maher's program.

Riding high in her career, this fortysomething feminist provocateur, drawn to making bold connections between porn and pop culture, is a magnet for envy. She's smart, she's sexy, she's independent.

So why is she suddenly having a middle-aged meltdown, agonizing over her life choices and feeling bereft because she doesn't have a husband and children?

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The age-old question about whether a woman can have it all is given a defiantly un-P.C. spin in Gina Gionfriddo's bright comedy "Rapture, Blister, Burn," which opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse. The production, which stars Amy Brenneman as the outwardly formidable, inwardly shaky Catherine, reassembles under Peter DuBois' direction the top-notch cast of the play's off-Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons.

Having returned to New England to look after her mother, Alice (Beth Dixon), who has had a heart attack yet seems spry and not all that interested in being nursed, Catherine reconnects with old friends from graduate school, Don (Lee Tergesen) and his wife, Gwen (Kellie Overbey). "Old friends" is a simplification. Catherine and Don were in a passionate relationship, but after Catherine took a London fellowship, Don and Gwen, who was Catherine's roommate, became a couple.

Catherine, an intellectual superstar, and Gwen, a married mother of two, see each other as the road not taken. Both have come to wonder whether they've badly miscalculated.

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Gwen is unhappy in her marriage to a man whose academic career hasn't taken off and whose penchant for pot and porn has turned him into an aging slacker. She longs for professional fulfillment. Catherine, scared that the death of her mother will rob her of her most caring relationship, doesn't want to end up revered and alone.

A good portion of the play takes place in a special seminar that Catherine holds in her mother's home. The class, arranged by Don, a dean at a no-prestige college, consists of two students, Gwen, who wants to finally complete her degree, and Avery (Virginia Kull), a smart 21-year-old firebrand with a black eye who's working on a reality show with her boyfriend and is full of lively pronouncements. Stripping, she says to Gwen's clucking disbelief, "was very good for me emotionally."

The course has the women reheating the debate between second wave feminist leader Betty Friedan and anti-feminist crusader Phyllis Schlafly, with Schlafly often — and rather unexpectedly — appearing to regain the upper hand, especially during those points in the seminar when Alice serves martinis and the conversation about the balance of power in male-female relationships takes a decidedly personal turn.

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Catherine and Gwen eventually make the kind of experimental life swap that reality TV programs are built on. The play is of course conducted at a far loftier level, but the contrivances nonetheless pile up and the first act setup is a bit sluggish.

But Gionfriddo has a rare talent for capturing moments of wayward life onstage. Her humor bends in a fugitive direction, exposing the way desire routinely outfoxes morality.

As with "Becky Shaw" — an earlier Gionfriddo play that, like "Rapture, Blister, Burn," was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize — the characters behave in a predictably unpredictable fashion. Everyone, even traditional, chatty Gwen, is a wild card. Note the look of temptation that washes over Overbey's face as Gwen entertains Catherine's offer to take her 3-year-old child off her hands so that she can pursue her education.

Picking up many of the same threads of "The Heidi Chronicles," Wendy Wasserstein's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about a female art historian struggling to reconcile the ideals of the women's movement with her own ambivalent heart, "Rapture, Blister, Burn" can at times seem politically retrograde, as though all the hard-won progress was a Trojan horse of loneliness and regret.

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But the play's originality lies in its recognition that life is infinitely messier than theory. The play is hardly anti-feminist, though it wants to challenge fixed notions from across the political spectrum that make the pursuit of happiness seem easier than it is.

The chorus of female voices, from the pre-feminist Alice to the post-post-feminist Avery, allows for a multigenerational examination of a subject that is too important to treat in a doctrinaire manner. And it is this freedom of expression, comically maximized by Kull (who steals every scene that she's in) and crackingly delivered by Dixon, that is the most satisfying aspect of a play that dramatically isn't always as fluid.

Brenneman, best known for her work on the TV drama "Judging Amy," is very natural at playing a character who is both a kind of celebrity and a basket of unmet needs — i.e., a human being. She's appealing, never looking less than a million bucks even when Catherine has been up all night drinking, but she doesn't prevent us from seeing this woman's flaws or questioning the extent of her self-knowledge.