Catherine is a successful author, a “sexy scholar” whose provocative views on feminist issues make her a popular guest on TV talk shows. Her friend Gwen is a seemingly happy homemaker with a husband and two kids. In “Rapture, Blister, Burn,” having it all has never seemed so elusive — or so rich in comic possibilities.
Gina Ginafriddo’s play, which opened the Aurora Theatre Company’s 23rd season Thursday, takes Second Wave feminism for a funny, fast-paced spin. This finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize gets a snappy staging by director Desdemona Chiang in its first Bay Area production.
Catherine (a briskly assertive Marilee Talkington) and Gwen (a prim, bossy Rebecca Schweitzer) were college roommates, but their lives went separate ways – one, on the academic track, the other to domestic bliss. They’ve been out of touch for a decade, but when Catherine comes home to care for her aging mother, Alice (tart-tongued Lillian Bogovich), they re-connect.
The problem is that Gwen’s husband, Don (easy-going Gabriel Marin) used to be Catherine’s boyfriend. When Catherine left to study abroad, Don married Gwen. Now, the marriage is stale, and when Catherine appears, Don — a dean at a local college — gets her a summer teaching gig and begins rekindling their aborted romance.
The first half peaks in Catherine’s feminist studies class, where Gwen and her babysitter, Avery (a fierce, forthright Nicole Javier), are the only students. As they discuss Betty Friedan, feminist detractor Phyllis Schlafly, slasher movies, and the big question — what men really want — the political turns personal.
Despite her success, Catherine feels empty; Gwen wishes she’d finished her degree, and she’s disgusted with Don’s porn-watching, pot-smoking lack of ambition.
Twenty-something Avery doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. She thinks you can have it all, and great sex, too. Alice injects well-timed martinis and pre-feminist bromides into the mix.
Gianfriddo clearly takes delight in turning the debate on its head: despite a piercing sense of longing under all the talk, everyone gets something a little different than what they wished for.
Chiang’s excellent staging — on Kate Boyd’s homey set, with Heather Basarab’s warm lighting and effective sound by Brendan Aanes — balances the salty with the sweet. And the cast is sharp.
Talkington’s cool assurance plays well against Schweitzer’s simmering rage, and Marin hits all the right notes as the aging slacker. Bogovich and Javier shine in scene after hilarious scene. Together, they achieve something rare — a comedy that goes deep, yet never loses its sense of humor.
Rapture, Blister, Burn
Where: Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept. 28
Tickets: $32 to $50
Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org