LONDON (Reuters) - Can women have it all? This old issue is revisited by Gina Gionfriddo's piercingly funny play "Rapture, Blister, Burn," looking at the lives of three women from different generations and throwing in a love triangle for some added drama.
After a well-received round in the United States in 2011, American Pulitzer Prize finalist Gionfriddo's play opened at the Hampstead Theatre in London last week, directed by Peter DuBois.
Critical reaction was mixed. The Guardian pointed out that "while the play asks pertinent questions about the dilemmas confronting women... it seems dismally reactionary in its conclusion that public fulfillment and private happiness are irreconcilable".
The Telegraph, on the other hand, called it a "highly intelligent play" with "winning humor and palpable humanity".
The plot revolves around three former grad-school friends in their 40s who reunite when Catherine, a glamorous, high-profile academic and author, leaves her high-flying New York lifestyle to return to her small hometown and care for her mother Alice, who has just suffered a heart attack.
Living next door are her ex-boyfriend Don (Adam James) and his wife, the controlling stay-at-home mother Gwen (Emma Fielding).
To keep herself busy Catherine, played by Emilia Fox, holds summer classes in which she lectures on feminism, pornography and horror films to her only students, Gwen and her former babysitter, the irreverent 21-year old Avery (Shannon Tarbet).
In a series of scenes combining feminist theory and dry wit,
the three women clash and end up exploring their own conceptions of women's relations with men.
Gionfriddo gives her characters plenty of time to discuss the ideas of conservative Phyllis Schlafly, famous for her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment in the United States, and those of Betty Friedan, whose work in the 1960s questioned women's traditional role as domestic mothers.
"You either have a career and wind up lonely and sad, or you have a family and wind up lonely and sad?", asks Avery, as the two older women share their regret over the choices that led to their polar opposite lives.
The discussions are peppered with a series of bitingly funny jokes on sex, relationships and, believe it or not, Google maps and pornography.
"No one buys the cow when you can get the milk for free," says Alice, while sipping on one of her many martinis, in reference to Avery's current relationship status as "hooking up exclusively" (and strictly not the other way round).
During the course of the debates, both Catherine and Gwen end up revealing their dissatisfaction with their lives and secret longing for what they gave up - be it career or family.
"Being alone wasn't a problem until I faced losing my mother," Catherine remarks remorsefully.
Gwen's frustration at having given up college is compounded by Don's utter lack of ambition in his job as a local college dean. But the real problem is another one. He is addicted to pot and pornography. The "tame" sort, he hastens to add in a later scene.
Avery, meanwhile, is firmly pragmatic, refusing to see having a career and a family as a zero-sum game.
Gionfriddo offers no panacea to the issue of navigating a career and a family. The characters all have a stab at compensating for their past decisions but wind up settling for their former, moderately fulfilling lives.
The question at the heart of the play, it seems, is left unresolved.
Reporting By Julia Fioretti; Editing by Michael Roddy and Tom Heneghan