Brenneman Snares Slacker in ‘Burn’; ‘Storefront’: Review

Amy Brenneman and Lee Tergesen are former lovers having an illicit affair in Gina Gionfriddo's "Rapture, Blister, Burn." The play is staged by Peter DuBois. Photograph:Carol Rosegg/Publicity Office via Bloomberg

Amy Brenneman plays Catherine, a superstar academic who can’t find love in Gina Gionfriddo’s grim, smart comedy “Rapture, Blister, Burn.”

She tries to wrench it back by hooking up with the long-ago love of her life.

Don (Lee Tergesen) was a bright college mate who never burned with Catherine’s ambition. A first-class procrastinator, he’s settled into a marriage to Catherine’s best friend from school and an unchallenging career.

When Catherine shows up one summer evening, an affair already seems inevitable.

We learn that she recently drunk-dialed Don and Gwen (Kellie Overbey) in the middle of the night. As the details are slowly revealed, the two women fight for a man who doesn’t seem, on the evidence, worth all the fuss.

That’s clearly Gionfriddo’s point. The title comes from a rescue-fantasy song by Courtney Love’s band, Hole, that ends: “Ooo ooo I will follow you anytime, anywhere/Ooo ooo and I’ll come for you, just say you don’t care.”

Unlikely Dean

Catherine offers to teach a summer seminar on cultural feminism at the local college where Don is an unlikely disciplinary dean.

Her only two students, conveniently, are Gwen and her babysitter, Avery (Virginia Kull), who challenges Catherine’s feminist catechism (porn equals violence, etc.).

Also on hand is Catherine’s mother (Beth Dixon), recovering from a heart attack but not too ill to see that Don may be her daughter’s last chance and his family be damned.

If the Act I set-up is too schematic, there’s plenty of pay-off in the second.

With its sharp exchanges about second- and third-wave feminists and exclamation points provided by a song list running from Arcade Fire to the Jezebels, “Rapture, Blister, Burn” resonates with echoes of Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, “The Heidi Chronicles,” which opened in this very theater, Playwrights Horizons, 24 years ago. (There’s also an odd parallel with the film “Young Adult.”)

Both plays center on women whose accomplishments appear to have gotten in the way of finding love. Taking on face value the idea that men don’t want to marry smart, successful women is likely to make “Rapture” as infuriating to some as “Heidi” was.

Ambition, Disappointment

All the performances, under Peter DuBois’s thoughtful direction, are on target.

Brenneman is remarkably sympathetic as Catherine. Overbey is equally memorable as Gwen, who begins the play as smugly caustic, putting Don down at every public opportunity, but becoming conciliatory and resigned. Anything to avoid ending up alone.

Through June 24 at 416 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-279-4200; Rating: ***

‘Storefront Church’

The depressing focus of John Patrick Shanley’s new play at the Atlantic might be called Our Lady of Diminished Expectations.

It’s set in the Bronx, where borough president Donaldo Calderon (Giancarlo Esposito) is forced to bend his ethical standards by asking a banker for a favor. Tom Raidenberg (Jordan Lage) all too happily obliges; he needs the politician’s support for a multimillion-dollar project.

It’s the folks in Donaldo and Tom’s orbit who put the plot in motion. Jessie Cortez (Tonya Pinkins), a friend of the borough president’s mother, is in arrears on her mortgage, having taken out a second loan to help a preacher (Ron Cephas Jones), who wants to set up his ministry in her building.

To his deep discomfort, Donaldo finds out that his own mother has co-signed the note. The play opens with a scene in which Jessie’s husband, Ethan (Bob Dishy), meets with Tom’s underling, Reed Van Druyten (Zach Grenier), begging the bank not to foreclose. It’s a rich comic scene in which Ethan, faced with the unmovable Reed, turns their confrontation into a test of conscience in which God is clearly on his side.

Each of these characters is written and played with compassion, none more so than Jones’s soft-spoken preacher, paralyzed by a crisis of faith that has stopped him from opening his doors. As they gather in the makeshift church, Shanley’s gift for intertwining soul-searching with self-revelation provides the play with its power.

Jones is masterly as the uncertain but soulful preacher. Grenier is compelling as a former Master of the Universe reduced to being a functionary. He’s the devout nonbeliever who, once in this unlikely sacred chamber, gives testimony to a life wrecked by emptiness and despair.

Through June 24 at 336 W. 20th St. Information: +1-212-279-4200; Rating: **1/2

What the Stars Mean:
****        Do Not Miss
***         Excellent
**          Good
*           So-So
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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