Catherine don’t know nothin’ bout birthin’ babies. She’s got the career thing down, but as for family life and reproductive bliss, well, that’s another story. She’s never wanted that stuff, but now that she’s facing her mother’s mortality, the otherwise protective warmth of her impressive CV is feeling a little inadequate.
Gwen, on the other hand, is all too intimately acquainted with the world of infant feces and babysitter drama. A grad school frenemy of Catherine’s, Gwen chose love over work… and hates most every minute of it.
Such is the “Trading Spaces” setup of Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn, a comedy of envy animated by the tenets of feminism, now premiering at Playwrights Horizons. A thinking woman’s rom-com with detours into the classroom (thank you, Ms. Gionfriddo, for the concise and clarifying women’s movement summary!), Rapture, Blister, Burn humorously charts the failure of feminism to satisfy either the career woman or the homemaker. As Catherine and Gwen eye each other’s territory and greedily venture therein, the quest for good living feels ever more Sisyphean and futile. It seems that everyone—career woman, mom, and every variation in between—is, well, fucked.
It’s a quandary echoed in State of Wonder, the 2011 novel by Ann Patchett. Although that book’s forays into the thorny back country of feminism are far less explicitly spelled out than those in Ms. Gionfriddo’s play, State of Wonder asks with equal vigor, “how should we then live?” The novel centers around a female, American researcher working in bowels of the Amazon on a miracle drug that would extend fertility far into menopause. If successful, it would allow women into their ‘70s to conceive; one character calls it “the Lost Horizon of American ovaries.”
At first glance, the ethics of such a drug seem self-evident—it would be the height of female empowerment, right? Given the means to extend one’s biological clock almost indefinitely, a woman could be free to, say, forge a successful career uninterrupted by pregnancy, then pop out a few juniors easy as pie. She could plan complete work and home lives.
And yet—isn’t childbearing the historical centerpiece of female subjugation? In some (many?) hands, mightn’t the drug become a step back? In State of Wonder, the cynics joke that the fertility pill would create a horror show of unending reproduction, rendering women deferent, baby-making cows, from adolescence to grave. The treatment might spell nothing more than a trip back to the dark ages, a perverse romp into the medieval territory where being a woman means being pregnant.
It’s fun to consider what this miracle drug would mean to the characters of Rapture, Blister, Burn. Would Gwen have stayed the career course and delayed her marriage if a fertility pill were available? And would Catherine feel the same vocational angst and need for a man if there existed the assurance that her eggs were never going to deteriorate? With a pill around, the thinking might go, the two women wouldn’t need to choose between paths. They could have it all, whenever they wanted.
But my guess is that both women would behave similarly with or without a pill. As written, each woman’s troubles seem more about men than childbearing. Catherine probably does want children, but what she really, immediately wants is Gwen’s husband. And Gwen doesn’t seem as interested in postponing children as in getting out of the damn house. On reflection, it appears that what Gwen and Catherine could really use isn’t baby-on-demand, but man-on-demand.
Sorry girls, but there’s no pill—fictional or otherwise—for that.
Rapture, Blister, Burn
by Gina Gionfriddo, directed by Peter DuBois
Playwrights Horizons, through June 24
Pictured: Beth Dixon and Amy Brennaman. Photo by Carol Rosegg.