Despite its assertive title, from the intense lyric of a Courtney Love song, there’s little about Gina Gionfriddo’s uneven but often amiably witty new comedy, Rapture, Blister, Burn (Playwrights Horizons), that evokes the extremes of either internal frenzy or external agony. A would-be sly inspection of generational shifts in feminist attitudes, the play juxtaposes the discontents of Catherine (Amy Brenneman), a bestselling academic eminence, unhappily unmarried, and her disappointed-in-marriage onetime best buddy, Gwen (Kellie Overbey), who snagged the lovable but underachieving doofus, Don (Lee Tergesen), whom both gals coveted. For generational contrast, Gionfriddo flanks the triangle with Catherine’s pre-feminist homemaker mom, Alice (Beth Dixon), and Don’s troubled but brilliant, ultra-hipster student, Avery (Virginia Kull).
Catherine’s celebrity career having temporarily run aground, she moves back home, reunites with her old grad-school pals, and soon finds herself teaching a special-study course in contemporary feminist history, with Gwen and Avery, improbably, her only students. She also finds herself, with Alice’s active encouragement, scheming to take Don away from Gwen, the show’s running joke being that marriage has gratifications which female independence can’t supply, thus proving—at least to Gionfriddo’s glibly cynical eye for facile provocation—that Phyllis Schlafly gave women wiser guidance than Betty Friedan.
Matters get rebalanced by the end, but not before the play’s fluid, funny streams of convincing interaction have been interrupted, far too often, by loudly announced contrivances that temporarily drag Gionfriddo’s tantalizing work down to sketch-comedy level. What beleaguers Gionfriddo is less the issue she takes with the feminist agenda than her excessive fussing over her dramaturgical agenda: She’s often so busy making the play effective that she loses sight of who her characters are.
Though Wendy Wasserstein’s Heidi Chronicles has been much cited as a model, Rapture, Blister, Burn more closely resembles John Van Druten’s 1940 divertissement, Old Acquaintance, updated with feminist-academic buzzword-dropping. Peter DuBois directs it smoothly. All five actors sculpt their roles with vivid stokes, the incisive Brenneman and the inventive Kull making a particularly strong impression. (A small quibble about the always excellent Overbey: Her intriguing choice for the character includes a self-deprecating speech pattern that tends to muffle the ends of her lines.) But I truly wish Gionfriddo had been less anxious about marketing her play; the passages when she forgets about doing so and just lets her people live soar well above the pattern into which her script is forced.