Chicago Theater Review: RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN (Goodman Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 27, 2015

in Theater-Chicago

PASSIONLESS PRONOUNCEMENTS

Freud’s enduring question persists: “What do women want?” Gina Gionfriddo’s aggressively hip drama, now in an equally frenetic staging by Kimberly Senior, offers a Cosmo-cute depiction of the perils and promises of feminism. It focuses like a lame laser on the (supposedly) only choices facing its female characters—college and a career or love, marriage and kids. If that sounds simplistic, welcome to Rapture, Blister, Burn.

Cassidy Slaughter-Mason (Avery Willard), Jennifer Coombs (Catherine Croll) and Mary Ann Thebus (Alice Croll) in Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn, directed by Kimberly Senior at Goodman Theatre. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Actually, it’s a panel discussion disguised as a play, outtakes from The View stretched into two acts and 145 minutes: Gionfriddo’s people talk themselves into existence: They have no inner life the moment they shut their mouths. The stereotypical spinster who sacrificed domesticity for success, Catherine Croll (vibrant Jennifer Coombs) is a globe-trotting scholar, full of advice she doesn’t waste on herself. Her grad-school friend Gwen Harper (Karen Janes Woditsch, mired in her character) has raised a family that consumes her time and depletes her joie de vivre. Twenty years later, both women wonder about the road not taken and whether they chose the course that could complete them.

“Of all sad words of mice and men / The saddest are these: ‘It might have been.’”

Catherine, it seems, had a long-ago fling with Gwen’s husband Don (Mark L. Montgomery), a dean of discipline who’s into porn and pot. That desultory dalliance threatens to become a present threat to Gwen’s less than happy home. So, by play’s end will the status quo be reaffirmed? Will two mid-life crises force their victims to change horses in midstream? Do people raise their voices on cable TV? Yes, somehow a schematic, by-the-numbers story manages to reach a predetermined and blatantly obvious outcome.

Mark Montgomery (Don Harper) and Karen Janes Woditsch (Gwen Harper) in Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn, directed by Kimberly Senior at Goodman Theatre. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Adding their perspectives (position papers from talking heads) are members of the older and younger generation. Gwen’s twentysomething babysitter Avery Willard (sassy Cassidy Slaughter-Mason) represents feckless youth: To her, love is an encumbrance when the real deal is a search for security (as in economic). On the other side, Catherine’s mother (the always wonderful Mary Ann Thebus) remembers when feminism was more than a punchline: She subtly regrets her daughter’s failure to commit to a biological future.

Well, women are from Venus and men are from Mars, after all. That’s as much profundity as this six-inch drama dares to deliver.

Jennifer Coombs (Catherine Croll) and Mark Montgomery (Don Harper) in Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn, directed by Kimberly Senior at Goodman Theatre. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Once you know how they fit into the continuum of Gionfriddo’s illustrated lecture, no surprises are possible (other than Catherine falling twice for the oafish, mediocre Don). Every clichéd revelation or perverse revisionism (horror movies celebrate the independent women who survive the slaughter!) that isn’t predictable is polemical. Ibsen’s A Doll’s House had more courage of conviction than this utterly conventional lifestyle meditation on the dangers of trying to have it all. It’s facile, smug, static, glib and very, very pat, a mash-up of opinion-mongering, thinking-inside-the box, and citation-heavy book reports disguised as dialogue. Gionfriddo, in short, is a very calculating playwright eager to stifle any fresh breeze that threatens her handiwork. Her sole goal: No audience member must ever feel outside his comfort zone.

Mary Ann Thebus (Alice Croll), Karen Janes Woditsch (Gwen Harper), Cassidy Slaughter-Mason (Avery Willard) and Jennifer Coombs (Catherine Croll) in Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn, directed by Kimberly Senior at Goodman Theatre. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Of course, Goodman conceals this Powerpoint, button-pushing drama under Jack Magaw’s showroom sets. His detailed locales suggest that there’s an actual backdrop to this puppet play. No go—you can’t confer substance on slickness, which makes it astonishing how hard five actors work to graft flesh onto formulae. If they had literally phoned in their performances, Rapture, Blister, Burn (well, the last two are right) would have confirmed its two dimensions.

It’s much worse than to completely ignore women’s issues to reduce them to talking points in an airless play.

photos by Liz Lauren

Rapture, Blister, Burn
Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn
ends on February 22, 2015
for tickets, call 312.443.3800 visit www.GoodmanTheatre.org

for more info on Chicago Theater, visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Maggie February 15, 2015 at 4:52 pm

Your reviews are all snarky and supercilious. Calm down.

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