Are the fine lines between second- and third-wave feminism really the stuff of explosive comedy? They are in Gina Gionfriddo’s uproarious and unsettling “Rapture, Blister, Burn” at Round House Theatre, especially when a 21-year-old named Avery is lobbing dry one-liners at an older generation that doesn’t get casual hookups and point-and-click porn.
If you don’t know your feminist history chapter and verse, never fear. Gionfriddo orchestrates a brief and highly entertaining survey (with martinis) led by the play’s deeply conflicted heroine, a hotshot scholar named Catherine. Her students are the hilariously blunt Avery — a skimpily dressed babysitter who has a black eye when we meet her — and Catherine’s old college pal Gwen, who dropped the intellectual life to get married and eventually have children.
Now in their 40s, Catherine (looking very downtown in tight black jeans and heels) and Gwen (who arrives in a shapeless sundress) each wants what the other has. They also both want the only man in the play, Gwen’s husband — who, juicily, is Catherine’s old boyfriend. Don is an underachieving, high-fiving college dean whose slacker habits are amusingly captured in Tim Getman’s beer-guzzling, devil-may-care performance.
The chassis is built for laughs, yet Gionfriddo has called this “my play of ideas,” and the show easily delivers on that. With a scalding title, it’s a close sister to Wendy Wasserstein’s 1988 “The Heidi Chronicles,” the controversial comedy-and-tears hit that interrogated the limits of the feminist movement. The 2013 Pulitzer finalist “Rapture” asks questions, too, probing at a loneliness that bedevils its women and daring to suggest that anti-feminists such as Phyllis Schlafly may have been on to something.
Gionfriddo, a veteran of TV’s “Law & Order,” is a breezy writer, and she debates everything, from the sexual politics of horror films to Dr. Phil-style advice on how to get a husband, in director Shirley Serotsky’s crisply performed, visually unfussy production. Set designer Daniel Conway’s simple cutout of a suburban home unnervingly takes us back to the domestic battlefield of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” only now with career-vs.-family tensions playing out in modern living rooms and by the backyard grill.
The play front-loads its politics and then plunges into the personal, with behavior that grows alarmingly Darwinian as the characters grab at what they want. Playing Catherine — the show’s update of Wasserstein’s lonely, scholarly Heidi — Michelle Six puts an approachable face on feminist theory; Six so winningly explains Catherine’s books on porn, Abu Ghraib and “the rise of degradation as entertainment” that you can see why the skeptical Avery would quickly be intrigued.
Avery is played with fabulous slow-burn timing by Maggie Erwin, recently seen as the ditzy Gentile in another whip-smart comedy, “Bad Jews” (still running at Studio Theatre). Erwin is terrific at the dripping disdain of hip youth schooling out-of-it old folks, but she’s also absorbing when the confident Avery unexpectedly finds herself in the same unhappy pickle as Catherine and Gwen.
Beth Hylton delivers a quietly frightening portrait of frustration and compromise as Gwen, and Helen Hedman brings a serene note as Catherine’s mother, Alice, who serves the cocktails and joins the discussions. It’s Alice’s heart attack that has brought Catherine home, and Six keeps Catherine’s terror and grief understated yet completely understood.
Like the rest of the cast, Six is deft with a punch line. The play is engagingly up-to-the-minute — Avery’s symbolically rich black eye comes from a provocative documentary that she’s filming with her unseen boyfriend — and Gionfriddo has a gift for creating frisky humor even as she explores some of our deepest discontents.
She also knows how to keep you off balance. Perhaps the best part of the play, which draws its title from a bitter song by the grunge band Hole, is its unexpected twists: the conversational drop shots, the forays into surprisingly bad actions and Gionfriddo’s clear-eyed refusal to settle for easy answers.
by Gina Gionfriddo. Directed by Shirley Serotsky. Costumes, Debra Kim Sivigny; lights, Andrew Cissna; composer/sound designer, Matthew M. Nielson. About 2