In Gina Gionfriddo’s new play Rapture, Blister, Burn, Catherine’s got the sexy academic career that every Ph.D. dreams about: another book out, TV appearances on Bill Maher, and an upcoming speaking engagement in Italy.
So what’s she doing outside a bar, drunk-dialing her grad school ex-boyfriend and ex-friend? The ones who ended up together with a dying marriage, two kids, and a job that requires regular doses of pot and porn to make it through the week. This might be the vodka tonics talking, but…she wants what those two got. Maybe.
Gionfriddo has written a play that brilliantly combines a brief history of feminist theory with the hilarious, awkward, high-stakes reunion between the old friends. Throw in Catherine’s outspoken mother Alice, feisty undergrad Avery, and you’ve got three generations weighing in on the choices facing women in today’s world.
Rapture, Blister, Burn is getting its world premiere through June 24 at Playwrights Horizons directed by Peter DuBois, who also directed Gionfriddo’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize-finalist Becky Shaw. I caught up with Gina just as previews were beginning, and what she had to say was just as smart and compelling as the play itself.
Kathryn Walat (Rail): What was the initial spark for you to write Rapture, Blister, Burn? It has such a terrific mix of theory/politics, together with appealing, complicated—and sometimes flawed—characters.Gina Gionfriddo: I actually set out to write a play about the impact of Internet pornography. I was a child of the ’70s, you know. I remember a world before cable TV and VCRs, when pornography was just magazines and X-rated movie theaters. To access it, you had to form a plan and actually interact with other humans. Today, the Internet has made really hardcore porn accessible in private, in seconds. I’m fixated on the idea that there has to be major psychological/sociological fallout from that.
Initially I had a really lousy impulse, which was to make my protagonist an academic so she could lecture on this topic that fascinated me so. Obviously, if your impulse in writing a play is just to put opinions in a character’s mouth...well, that’s not going to be a living, breathing piece of theater.
But I kept the protagonist as an academic who studies pornography and started to brainstorm an active storyline that would enable her to confront the issues she studies. From there, the play evolved into a story less about porn than the state of male/female relationships at this particular time in America.
DON: At least your sexual depravity has a little cache to it. …Picking up a guy in a bar. It’s retro.CATHERINE:Why is it retro?DON:You’re supposed to do that stuff on Craigslist now. You’re out looking for Mr. Goodbar like it’s 1975. I think it’s adorable. Whereas my shit is… I’m jerking off to a computer while my family watches Toy Story. It’s just appalling.CATHERINE:Why do you care what I think of you at this point?DON:I’m a guy, I’ve got the caveman writing.CATHERINE:What does that mean?DON:The girl is supposed to cook the big game after I catch it. She’s not supposed to catch the big bison instead of me.CATHERINE:You think I caught the big bison?DON:You did. And Gwen knows.
Rail: At the risk of nerding out, did you get to do a lot of cool academic research? Are there any books or articles you consider vital to the discussion?
Gionfriddo: I read a lot of books about the history and impact of pornography. The one I became totally obsessed with is called The Porning of America (Sarracino and Scott). What I found was that any book that takes on the history of porn in America has to also take on the history of the feminist movement, because at a certain point, this question of “how dangerous to women is porn, really?” split the movement in half.
And where feminism evolves from there is really interesting. To be a feminist who isn’t interested in fighting pornography as vigorously as, say, wage discrimination and the right to vote, suddenly becomes a “pro-sex” feminist. Which is fine—except that that label equates being anti-porn with being anti-sex, which isn’t really accurate or fair.
This concept of “pro-sex” feminism evolves over the next 30 years to where we are today, with women taking pole-dancing classes for exercise and lining up to flash their breasts in a Girls Gone Wild video. And a really smart contemporary feminist like Ariel Levy saying, “Wow... The new liberation looks an awful lot like the old degradation.”
AVERY:Here’s what I think “love” is. You know how when you get drunk you get nicer? Like I’ll get drunk and decide some annoying girl is my new best friend. I’ll smoke a hundred cigarettes with her and bond like we’re at camp and then…when I sober up, she just seems annoying again and I’m stuck having brunch with her. You know?CATHERINE:I do.AVERY:Drunk is your body under the influence of alcohol and “love” is your body under the influence of hormones. Booze, sex, hormones… they do the same thing which is dupe you into thinking average people are great.CATHERINE:What a grim philosophy.AVERY:I’m a Bio major. Evolutionarily? It makes total sense. The love drunk lasts about six months. Just enough time to get knocked up and trapped.
Rail: It’s very smart how you use discussion in the summer school seminar—with Catherine’s mother Alice in the background making the after-school martinis—to capture shifting opinions on sexual/relationship politics. Do we have something to learn from our elders and youngsters? Or does each generation have to figure it out for itself?
Gionfriddo: I wanted to let multiple generations of women speak to each other in this play because I think that dialogue has value, and it’s a dialogue that was so heated for so many years between me and my mom. And I just had a baby daughter, so I am already imagining myself embodying the prude-mom role in this fight, say, 15 years from now.
One of the curious things I came across in my research was a lecture Naomi Wolf has given at colleges which is essentially a call for a return to courtship—an argument for postponing sex and chastely dating for a while before you jump into bed. She’s saying some of the same stuff that Phyllis Schlafly says, about sexual freedom making women unhappy. So you have Wolf, a cool liberal feminist, and a woman (Schlafly) who opposes almost all rights for women, saying essentially the same thing. That interests me.
CATHERINE:Look, Schlafly is very clear that when a man and woman come together, the man must lead and the woman must follow. Now, yes that’s an offensive notion…But my middle-aged observation is that…In a relationship between two people, you can’t both go first.ALICE: It’s true, Cathy.CATHERINE: Stop. You always encouraged me to put myself first.ALICE: And I still do! If I were you, I’d stay single. There’d be no existential anything.GWEN: You think you’re alone because you put your career first?AVERY: Wait. Why does someone have to come first? What’s wrong with 50/50?CATHERINE: I think theoretically you can have 50/50. But on a practical, geographic level it’s just very hard to do.
Rail: Your play referenced something that I’ve also noticed: that college-aged women now don’t consider themselves “feminists.” Why do you think that is?
Gionfriddo: I think that being feminist became equated with being anti-sex at a certain point. And young women don’t want to be anti-sex, obviously, and they sure don’t want potential lovers to see them as anti-sex. So you have a situation where feminism’s major battles and achievements are being glossed over and minimized by young women who, understandably, want to celebrate their sexuality.
I think it’s similar to a phenomenon you see sometimes in the gay male community. You have gay men of a certain age who lived through the AIDS crisis and remember fighting for their lives in the face of the cruelest indifference. But very young gay men don’t have this memory, so there’s sometimes a sense of…We’re grateful, but your anger is kind of a buzz kill.
I remember being a teenager and thinking that Roe v. Wade could never be overturned, and that women in the generation above me who thought it could were just working through their PTSD from the ’60s and bumming me out in the process. And now here I am at 42. My cousin’s daughters are blithe and bratty, and I am the older lady screaming that the sky is falling.
Rail: Something that I loved in Peter DuBois’s production of Becky Shaw (a dark comedy about a blind date gone very wrong) was the way he captured the play’s distinctive tone. How did the rehearsal with him shape this play?
Gionfriddo: He just has a fabulous sense of humor, and his humor goes to the dark, as mine does. So he’s not afraid to mine the comic territory, even in painful situations.
Rail: And what a fabulous cast you’ve got. Has working with them changed the way you viewed the characters?
Gionfriddo: Amy Brenneman, who plays Catherine, showed up totally willing to get hurt and heartbroken in the role. I was nervous about that, afraid of depicting this woman as defeated and disempowered. But now I see that the stakes have to be that high for the disappointments in the play to matter.
Rail: Has your work for TV (as a writer/producer on Law & Order) influenced your craft or sensibilities as a playwright?
Gionfriddo: It’s taught me how to rewrite. In TV, the deadlines are so unforgiving. If you realize you have a problem with a script, you just have to fix it. You don’t have the luxury of saying, “I need to put the play away for a month and see it again fresh.” Waiting for inspiration is almost always procrastination. Now I get more done.