Rapture, Blister, Burn
ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., 292-7676, acttheatre.org. $41 and up. Runs Tues.–Sun. Ends Aug. 11.
High-achieving feminist academics brought low make comedic targets nearly as reliable as tight rich geezers did in Molière’s day. But does that mean they’ve come a long way, baby? Catherine (Kristen Potter)—the 42-year-old über-intellectual protagonist of Gina Gionfriddo’s sitcom-funny idea play—isn’t so sure. Yeah, she’s invited to pontificate all over the world; and sure, the money and deference paid to her are swell; but where’s the love? Where’s the fulfillment? Egad, she’s even starting to think anti-feminist icon Phyllis Schlafly got some of it right. Her mother’s heart attack prompts a return home to rethink her choices; the visit also has her checking on former grad-school roommate Gwen (Kathryn Van Meter), who chose the path of homemaking and motherhood with her husband Don (Jeffrey Fracé), Catherine’s old boyfriend.
Potter (Or, and Photograph 51) is a good choice for Catherine; she has a knack for playing smart, rapier-tongued women in ways that don’t make us hate them. Don, now a college dean, allows Catherine to teach a course in her mother’s living room, which conveniently allows a survey of feminist history peppered with so many jokes that many get lost in the laughs that precede them (a nifty problem to have). That Catherine’s only two students are Gwen and her subversive babysitter Avery (bodacious Mariel Neto) betrays Gionfriddo’s background in TV writing, where storycrafting economy trumps plausibility as long as it’s funny enough. The ideas batted around are deeper than our investment in the characters; exposition abounds; and underdeveloped Don often seems a thankless punching bag. Nonetheless, the multigenerational lady-bonding is often hilarious. Catherine’s mother Alice (Priscilla Lauris) periodically brings the septuagenarian perspective and pilfers laughs like a demonic fairy. Avery’s attempts to explain the term “hooking up” to her elders, and her likening of porn-powered solo sex to Google Maps (“Once you start getting directions from Google, it seems like a huge hassle to unfold a map”) brought the house down.
The Freaky Friday-style life swap that Gwen and Catherine contemplate isn’t exactly fresh, yet that doesn’t make the absurd sight of Catherine and Don galumphing around the sectional in their skivvies any less enjoyable. (Anita Montgomery directs the hijinks.) Theatrical elements, like women, can be simultaneously smart and clichéd and funny and irritating and cool. End of class.