Have you figured out how to negotiate a better equality between you and your spouse, partner or casual hook-up friend? If you have, I’d like to know and so would Catherine, the protagonist in Gina Gionfriddo’s new Pulitzer Price nominated play now showing at the Hampstead Theatre. Catherine is an academic feminist author and a talk show pundit (dubbed the “hot doomsday chick”) who looks amazing in her skinny jeans. She has returned home to care for her ageing mother Alice, who has just suffered a heart attack. She’s sexy, wealthy, independent and clever. Surely, she’s got it all. But does she?
The homecoming is an opportunity to visit old graduate university friends, Gwen and Don. Where Catherine has forged ahead with a successful career, Gwen is the stay at home mum of two, married to Catherine’s ex. Over copious amounts of beer and martinis, we discover that Catherine’s life is not as shiny as first appearance would have you believe. Having recently turned 40, she is re-examining her life and admits to feeling unfulfilled, of having regrets about not marrying and having children. Gwen, on the other hand, is tired of her pot-smoking beer-drinking husband and envies her friend’s life in the big apple. She has often pondered whether she made the right choice in giving up her own academic ambitions to raise children and create a home when she feels that her husband’s lack of ambition in his own career as resulted in an inability to bring in more income. For Gwen, Don hasn’t fulfilled his side of the bargain.
The subject is, to say the least, topical and, as I sat in the dark, I wondered what my two male companions would make of a debate about the polemic of Betty Friedan vs. Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-feminist crusader. As it turns out, my partners enjoyed the play very much. So if the man in your life could use a refresher on the feminist movement of the late 20th century (and let’s be honest, what man doesn’t), then take him pronto.
To the feminist Catherine, her beliefs are being shaken as she moves into middle-aged. She is worried about her mother’s health and fears the loneliness that would ensue from loosing the only “important” relationship in her life. And so, she comes to the defence of Gwen who did espouse Schlafly’s choice. “Look, Schlafly is very clear that when a man and woman come together, the man must lead, and the woman must follow,” she says. “Now, yes, that’s an offensive notion when you put it out there as a rule. But my middle-aged observation is that in a relationship between two people, you can’t both go first.” Undeterred, Gwen hatches a plan for the two to switch lives. Catherine can have the life in the suburbs and her drink-anesthetised husband.
The play is a clear homage to Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “The Heidi Chronicles,” which I saw back in the stone age (1988) on Broadway (am I giving away too much here?) and loved. Rapture, Blister, Burn takes off where Heidi ended and similarly explores the difficulties for smart, accomplished and ambitions women to navigate their romantic lives. As with Ms. Wasserstein’s play, Ms. Gionfriddo’s play is funny, fast paced and engaging. She has created a play that brings together four women representing three generations who debate how women’s lives have evolved (or not) since the 60s.
You might wonder if any new insights can be unearthed here when so much ink has and is being spilled over the subject but I did feel that bringing in the new generation, with its casual attitude to sex, pornography and relationships has added another layer to the debate. Avery, Gwen and Don’s babysitter, is a young and self-confident student who has an entirely different view about relationships between men and women. She is unfazed, when told by Alice, that no one buys the cow if they can get the milk for free. To Avery, neither Catherine’s nor Gwen’s life seem appealing. In other words, young women today (presumably) don’t care if the men in their lives don’t want to buy the “cow”. “You either have a career and wind up lonely and sad, or you have a family and wind up lonely and sad?” As with many 20 years old, Avery is confident that by observing older women’s mistakes she has figured out how to have it all. Let’s wish her good luck.
What is so clever about the play is that it does not present Catherine or Gwen’s lives as two sides of a coin. Ideas are debated, sex, power, cavemen genes, pornography (never thought you could make such a funny joke about Google maps and pornography) are all added to the mix to create a sharp dialogue that will have you discussing whether it is possible for a woman to have both a satisfying career and fulfilling personal life when men can’t help but desire weak second lieutenants.
Emilia Fox is perfectly cast as Catherine, the strong passionate woman who can’t help herself to push Don to become more ambitious. Emma Fielding is convincing as the unhappy mother who yearn for more from life. Shannon Tarbet’s Avery is acerbic in her derision of “older” people who make all the wrong decisions but convincingly distressed when faced with similar romantic disappointments. As the only man on stage, Adam James’ Don, manoeuvres adroitly between the failed but not bothered academic and the reinvigorated sexual partner. Polly Adams is very good, though her American accent leaves much to be desired. The direction by long time collaborator Peter Dubois is excellent and the set by Jonathan Fensom is, how shall I say, as I would expect at Hampstead theatre – beautiful and ingenious.
As with Becky Shaw, Ms. Gionfriddo’s 2011 play, the dialogue is quick and funny and, though there isn’t much subtext, you should find plenty to chew on as you reflect on the difficulties of finding happiness when men and women want such different things from a relationship.