“To Phyllis Schlafly!”
It’s the start of a toast at the end of Rapture, Blister, Burn, which opened last night at Playwrights Horizons, and it’s an exhortation—admiration for the 1970s antifeminist activist, meant unironically, or at least mostly so—that you don’t hear every day in modern New York, whether at a dinner party or in a smart, clever, serious play by a talented, witty, thoughtful young playwright.
But it’s how Gina Gionfriddo, who several seasons ago delivered the juicy, off-kilter family drama Becky Shaw, which became a Pulitzer finalist, ends her very funny and surprisingly but warmly conservative new play about the battles over feminism in late 20th century America. Ms. Gionfriddo likes to upend expectations, and here the greatest surprise is that her set of strong, mostly independent female characters find a lot to like in the woman who told them they needed to remain dependent on men.
Handsomely directed by Peter DuBois on Alexander Dodge’s nifty set of interlocking shingled houses, Rapture sets up a neat, stark contrast. Don (Lee Tergesen) and Gwen (Kellie Overbey) are unhappily married in a New England college town, he an academic administrator and she a stay-at-home mother to their two sons. He likes pot and porn; she’s in AA. Catherine (Amy Brenneman) is their grad-school buddy turned famous author and late-night TV guest—an Ann Coulter who eats, she has been dubbed the “hot doomsday chick” by Bill Maher. She is back in town after her own mother has had a heart attack, successful and lonely and pining for Don, the man who got away.
Thus the eternal debate is engaged: Better to be single, successful and alone, or married, a mother and frustrated? Catherine covets Gwen’s life; Gwen covets Catherine’s.
Ms. Gionfriddo’s inspired twist is that the two women proceed to actually swap lives. Gwen takes her presumed-gay preteen son and moves to Catherine’s apartment in New York, where she gets back to work on her degree and the son, Julian, camps out for Wicked rush tickets (and meets, to everyone’s surprise, a girlfriend). Catherine shacks up with Don (and his younger, butcher son); she gets the family, the guy who got away and the small-town life.
It’s clever, just a little askew and delightfully intriguing. Ms. Gionfriddo provides her typically deft, clever dialogue for the characters in this love triangle, and for two others, the truth-tellers in the bunch: Alice (Beth Dixon), Catherine’s mother, who is hearty and strong-willed despite the regular discussion of her impending death; and Avery (Virginia Kull), a confident, post-feminist college student who once babysat for Don and Gwen. “Booze, sex, hormones,” Avery says laconically, watching the two older women squabble over the dweeb that is Don. “They do the same thing, which is dupe you into thinking average people are great.”
Unfortunately, this fun doesn’t arrive until the second act. The first drags, as Ms. Gionfriddo enrolls us in a graduate seminar on feminism. I mean this both literally—Catherine teaches a class that only Gwen and Avery sign up for—and figuratively—the play offers unending exposition on history and waves, Friedan and Schlafly and even Carol Clover. (Ms. Clover’s classic work, for the uninitiated, is Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.) The talented and nimble cast—especially the sensational Ms. Kull, as the wiser-than-she-seems young Avery—works hard to enliven this leaden section, and Ms. Gianfriddo’s one-liners are, as always, sharp. (Discussing the fights of first-wave feminists, Avery says, is “like discussing why people thought the earth was flat. It’s not, they were wrong, we’ve moved on.”) But, still, a spunky comedic drama needs long exchanges on feminist theory like a fish needs a bicycle.
Also, Catherine’s and Gwen’s dueling existential crises, revealed during those seminars, can seem facile: Of course, in drama, the career gal wants a family and the mother wants a career. So, too, is the ending, when Don and Gwen inevitably realize that even for their little fights, they’re happier with each other than without.
Even with these flaws, there’s still Ms. Gianfriddo’s astringently sparkling dialogue to savor, and also her final twist, that toast to Ms. Schlafly, reinterpreting her. “She said you girls would be for your independence and your whoring,” Alice tells Catherine and Avery, off together to New York. “She said men wouldn’t stay with you, and she was right.” Three glasses are held aloft. “You’re free,” Alice says. “You’re free.”
If Becky Shaw was a hard act for Ms. Gionfriddo to follow, consider the plight of John Patrick Shanley. His new Storefront Church is the final installment in a trilogy that began with Doubt, which earned him a Tony Award, a Pulitzer Prize and a movie starring Meryl Streep.
Luckily, this new effort is a success. Directed by the playwright and starring a sensational, powerful, memorable cast, Storefront Church isn’t the gut-punch that was Doubt, but it’s a meaningful evening, lovely and elegiac. A heartfelt but low-key look at a society where business has trumped everything, where development is always more important than nobility or spirituality, Mr. Shanley’s play opened Monday night as the appropriate first production in the Atlantic Theater Company’s newly renovated Linda Gross Theater, after a two-year overhaul that has left the former church more usable but much less charming.
Jessie Cortez (Tonya Pinkins) owns a house in the Bronx. She has rented its ground floor to the Reverend Chester Kimmich (Ron Cephas Jones), to open a church, and taken a second mortgage to help him renovate the space. But the reverend is facing a spiritual crisis and cannot preach. No services means no collection means no rent, and Jessie is facing foreclosure. The loan officer (an amazingly good Zach Grenier) with problems of his own won’t or more likely can’t help, and her hondling husband Ethan (Bob Dishy) is hoping for death and its attendant life-insurance payout. Jessie turns for help to a boy from the neighborhood who’s made good, Donaldo Calderon (Gioncarlo Esposito), now the borough president. Calderon, as it turns out, is at work on a major development project—an abandoned building set to become a mall—with the bank’s CEO, Tom Raidenberg (Jordan Lage). Ultimately, Raidenberg makes Jessie’s problem go away, and her loan is forgiven; in the process, he also ensures that Calderon will have no choice but to support his project.
If there’s a flaw, it’s that it’s never clear why the mall project shifts from being a good thing to a bad thing, why Calderon has to be bribed into backing it. But, even so, Mr. Shanley paints a subtle picture of the way banks always get what they want, how even the politicians who mean to stand up to them inevitably cannot. And there are some truly gorgeous touches: the loan officer’s attempts to explain that he cannot personally make any decisions, that banks are in fact not people, friend; Raidenberg gleefully devouring a gingerbread house while discussing foreclosures; Ms. Pinkins’ stubborn insistence on seeing the good; Mr. Jones’s dark night of the soul; watching Mr. Grenier’s depressed, repressed, disfigured loan officer finally, with a push from the reverend, coming out of his shell.
Ultimately, Mr. Shanley offers no prescription here, and not really that much hope. The world is the way the world now is, more usable but less charming. Storefront Church reminds us that even as we acknowledge this, we needn’t accept it. It’s good to have doubt.
Kenneth Lonergan is the successful screenwriter and movie director who made You Can Count on Me, among other films. He has also been known to be an excellent playwright, pleasing critics and crowds at the turn of the millennium with This Is Our Youth, Waverly Gallery and Lobby Hero. In his last play, 2009’s The Starry Messenger, he took on the task of directing his own script, and he seemed overwhelmed by it: What should have been a slim, sweet story of unhappy people searching for connection was instead an overstuffed, three-hour slog that made its audience into unhappy people searching for exits.
Now the Signature Theatre is presenting his latest work, Medieval Play, with Mr. Lonergan once again both writing and directing. And this time his play manages to be both meanderingly interminable and vacuously empty.
The conceit, I’ll grant, is moderately amusing: a medieval knight with a midlife crisis. (Was there existential angst before the Enlightenment?) “I said, you’re not going to rape any nuns while I’m around,” Sir Ralph (Josh Hamilton) tells his knightly colleagues, after his epiphany. But, of course, he cannot help himself, and, together with Sir Alfred (Tate Donovan) and others, he spends the rest of the show raping and pillaging. There are fine jokes, and amusing performances (notably John Pankow in a variety of preening roles), but the whole thing goes nowhere, nor does it seem to want to go anywhere.
Medieval Play is essentially a Fringe Festival show, a self-impressed lark with laughs derived only from its own silly knowingness. “By God, things certainly are grim here in Medieval France,” a deadpan Ralph says at the top of the show. “I certainly wish our civilization would outgrow this particular phase in its political development.” Things are grim at the Signature, too.