Review: 'Rapture, Blister, Burn.' Compare, contrast, discuss.

Theory is great for illuminating ideas, but it can't hold a candle to reality. The proof – threatrically, at least – is at the Wilma Theater, where Gina Gionfriddo's super-smart and wickedly funny "Rapture, Blister, Burn" is playing with just the right interpretations of both the theory and the reality.

 

The theory comes when a college professor and her mother (Krista Apple-Hodge and Nancy Boykin, both remarkable in their roles) host the professor's summer class on "The Fall of American Civilization" in a little New England college town.

Only two students are enrolled. One is the prof's long-ago buddy from grad school (a nicely dreary Maia De Santi), a reforming alcoholic who is married to the prof's former boyfriend (a louche college dean and porno addict played by Harry Smith). The other is a college junior (Campbell M. O'Hare, in a gleaming razor-edged portrayal) who is the play's mouthpiece for the next generation of adults and in sly way, its truth-teller.

And just how did American civilization fall? The prof, who has written popularly on the subject, contends it's because of the way American society responds to change and crisis by attacking women. Slasher and horror flicks? A response to such historic game-changers as the war in Vietnam and 9/11. Pornography? Pretty much the same. A discussion ensues about Betty Friedan and her polar intellectual opposite, Phyllis Schlafly.

The different generations in the group take sides. The college junior, raised in an era when the fight for women's rights has been long fought (at least to her), shrugs her shoulders at the idea that pornography is anything more than a harmless way to waste time, and sees the discussion about home-versus-career as mostly nonsense. "If you choose the right husband and the right career," she declares, "you can outsource the homemaker s---." The statement momentarily stuns the others. They also know it's true.

There are plenty of cool moments like that in "Rapture, Blister, Burn," and not everyone will like them. The big discussion in the first half about feminism and society's reaction in popular culture begins to feel forced, and I found myself flagging. Stay with it – it's a solid setup for the second half, when situations that were mere concepts in Act I become real-world conundrums in Act II.

Joanna Settle directs the production to include several flourishes – mostly stand-out reactions in the faces of the characters – and with snappy timing, but she's not afraid to slow the pace considerably when the mood calls for it. (In addition to her role here, Settle is the new head of the theater department at the University of the Arts.) Kristen Robinson's set design is composed of basic furniture and a blank back wall except for one word on it: Home. Just where is home? Well, let's see. We could talk theory. Or we could talk reality.