‘Rapture, Blister, Burn’ Funny and Profound (4.5 Stars)

“Rapture, Blister, Burn” Written by Gina Gionfriddo; Directed by Peter DuBois; Scenic Design by Alexander Dodge; Costumes by Mimi O’Donnell. Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont St., Boston 02116. Extended through June 30th.

There’s an old saying that holds that if we all threw our problems in a big pile and actually saw what everyone else’s looked like, we’d gladly take our own back. A variation on that adage might be that if we actually tried living a life that many of us think that we want, we might find that the reality is a lot less appealing than our fantasy. Everything has its price. Those themes are thoroughly (and riotously) examined in the Huntington Theatre Company’s terrific season-ending production of Gina Gionfriddo’s “Rapture, Blister, Burn” the 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist now running through June 30th at the Calderwood Pavilion in the South End.

The play opens with “Cosmo” prototype Catherine (Kate Shindle) a beautiful, single, and successful feminist author and talk show darling (Real Time with Bill Maher, anyway) catching up with now-married grad school buddies Don and Gwen Harper ((Timothy John Smith and Annie McNamara) after a few decades. Gwen and Don have two boys, 3 and 13, and it’s evident pretty early in the production that marital bliss fled the scene some time ago. What has brought the old friends back together is that Catherine’s mother Alice (local fave Nancy E. Carroll – seen recently in “Good People” and “Luck of the Irish”) has had a heart attack and she has returned to the small New England college town to care for her. But she also has more immediate secondary motives – trying to find out exactly what she said in a booze blackout to Gwen and also getting a summer teaching gig from Don (an assistant dean at the local unnamed college) to keep her distracted from her Mom’s pending demise. She gets both from Don – who was her boyfriend before Gwen “stole” him from her when she went abroad for a year, and the wheels are set in motion for some of the brightest and painfully truthful comic dialogue I’ve seen on stage in a while.

The class that Catherine ends up teaching consists of Gwen and her former babysitter Avery (Shannon Esper), a bright former pre-med student now filming a reality series with her boyfriend, and is held in Catherine’s mother’s living room as a sort of academic pre-cocktail hour. The class is designed to give a historical perspective of 60’s-and-beyond feminism and its effects on popular culture through film (well, slasher and horror movies) but quickly begins to incorporate the real life relationships of the women, including Catherine’s mother. As the details start to trickle out, we begin to see that Catherine’s ultra-glam career is a little on the lonely and unfulfilled side; Gwen’s marriage to Don is a loveless struggle (he is constantly stoned on pot and seemingly addicted to no-frills porn); and the best thing that Alice can say about her relationship to her husband was that he was a good provider.

Most of the characters seem to have an excessive fondness for booze – not in a sloppy drunken way, but not in a sophisticated Nick and Nora Charles fashion either. Gwen’s passion for the stuff landed her in AA and she makes a constant point of letting everyone know that she doesn’t drink anymore. Catherine is almost never seen without a beer or martini in her hand, and Don drinks a lot of beer between bong hits. Although the constant presence of booze seems as benign as a cigarette in 20th century movies, it did make me wonder if the author was asking a subtle question as to whether the booze was cushioning life’s blows for for the characters or informing some of their decisions in a less than optimal way. Whatever the case, it certainly helps some of the characters loosen up and get honest about the past and present state of their romantic lives as seen through the lens of feminist and anti-feminist thought. Phyllis Schlafly gets equal billing with Betty Friedan and surprisingly (and hilariously) holds her own, so you know the writing is brilliantly clever. And very funny. Espers’ Avery delivers the best comic blows as she deconstructs the intellectual feminist arguments with the harsh reality that what is right and makes sense oftentimes just doesn’t work very well when you throw men and women into the same equation. True love (at least what we think is true love) makes idiots of us all.

Feminism has never been thought of as a topic that generates much in the yucks department (although I always did like the “A woman without a man is like fish without a bicycle” bumper sticker for its sheer absurdity), so don’t be frightened away by the material. This is a first-rate production that anyone who appreciates great writing and solid acting in an uncomfortably truth-y comedy will love.