When Peter DuBois was directing Gina Gionfriddo’s play “Rapture, Blister, Burn” off-Broadway last year, a pivotal question arose. Are the characters 40 or 42? Two years might not seem like that big a deal, but in the context of the play, age matters. Two former college roommates meet again after many years: One is a superstar academic who never married or had children, and the other is a stay-at-home mom. They each have a few regrets, and each wants what the other one has.
“The stakes get raised as they get older,” DuBois says during an interview at the Huntington Theatre Company, where he is artistic director. By phone from New York a few days later, Gionfriddo completes the thought. “When you hit 40 or 42, it’s like you may have lost your chance to start a family or go further in your career,’’ she says. “It has to happen now, not in a year, not in two years. I think there is a certain desperation around 40 that you don’t see at 33 or 35.”
Director and playwright — both are 43 — speak the same theatrical language and share a simpatico vision that comes from years of collaboration. They first met in the 1990s at Brown University, where they studied with playwright Paula Vogel. DuBois directed Gionfriddo’s thesis production, a play called “U.S. Drag,” and after he became artistic director of Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska, she joined him there one summer to teach playwriting. They stayed close friends over the years, and now DuBois is her director of choice. He directed several productions of her play “Becky Shaw,” including one off-Broadway in 2009 and another at the Huntington in 2010. His Huntington production of “Rapture, Blister, Burn,’’ which was a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist, runs through June 22 in the Wimberly Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Vogel, a Pulitzer winner for “How I Learned to Drive,” remembers them both as young artists who fueled each other’s work. Gionfriddo, she says, had no fear. “She tried everything. She wrote amazing, ambitious scripts and finely nuanced monologues,’’ Vogel says. And DuBois was a firecracker, entering graduate school fresh from running a theater in Prague. “I practically promised him a car if he would come to Brown, which was really beyond my budget. I wanted him to work with these extraordinary writers.”
DuBois ended up crashing Vogel’s playwriting workshop, where he met Gionfriddo. They brought out the best in each other, Vogel says by phone, her admiration of them evident in her voice. “Gina’s plays have land mines between the lines, and it takes a very astute director to find them. They have a profound respect for each other’s process, which is the very best thing you can have.” It delights her, she adds, that Gionfriddo and DuBois “are continuing the conversation after all these years.”
“Rapture, Blister, Burn” takes its title from a lyric in the Hole song “Use Once and Destroy.’’ Catherine, the edgy academic who is hot on the talk-show circuit, returns home to a small New England town to care for her mother, who’s had a heart attack. It just so happens that Don, her former boyfriend, and Gwen, her former roommate, are living in the same town, where Don is a dean at a “fourth-rate liberal arts college.” Gwen wants the career she never had, and Catherine wants a family of her own. Things get messy when Gwen and a 21-year-old student named Avery enroll in Catherine’s summer seminar, a course called The Fall of American Civilization. Three generations of women, including Catherine’s mother, discuss “torture horror and sadistic porn” and debate the merits of conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly and feminist pioneer Betty Friedan.
But Gionfriddo says she didn’t set out to write a play about feminism. “I thought I was going to write a play about pornography,’’ she says. “I was reading books about the ramifications of hard-core porn being readily accessible, and the books sort of pointed to the way pornography fractured the feminist movement in the late 1970s.”
‘I think there is a certain desperation around 40 that you don’t see at 33 or 35.’
The play morphed into something else entirely. “I went to Barnard [College], and as an undergraduate at a women’s college, I thought ‘feminism’ was kind of a dirty word,’’ she says. “The message was ‘You can have it all,’ and even then, I had a dim, nagging awareness that I didn’t believe you could.” In the play, Avery asks if she understands correctly what her elders seem to be saying: “You either have a career and wind up lonely and sad, or you have a family and wind up lonely and sad?”
After the play was first produced in New York, Gionfriddo realized that she had, indeed, written a feminist play, with an uncanny similarity to the late Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Heidi Chronicles,’’ which debuted in 1988. Wasserstein’s Pulitzer winner ends with the title character becoming, by choice, a single mother — something Wasserstein did in 1999, when she was 48. Gionfriddo, who is single, gave birth to her daughter Ava in October 2011, while she was still working on “Rapture.”
She wrote about this unintentional similitude in a New York Times essay last year. But unlike Wasserstein’s play, Gionfriddo’s doesn’t end with an easy Madonna-and-child scene. “I was pregnant when I was writing the play, but without getting into too much detail, I had miscarriages, and it was not a smooth path,’’ she says. “I wasn’t one of those people who are pregnant and looking to the future joyfully. I felt it could all be taken away, and I was considering what life would be like if I didn’t have this baby.’’
Now, she is wrapped up in motherhood. In fact, she interrupts a phone interview to check a text from her baby sitter. She is taking a break from working in television, which she can do thanks to a nest egg she built from years of writing for “Law & Order.” She says she feels like Catherine’s mother in the play, who says, “I’d waited so long to have my baby, you know . . . I only had eyes for her.”
The career-family debate is ancient, and Gionfriddo doesn’t come up with pat answers. One of her characters says, “In a relationship between two people, you can’t both go first.” But during the interview, Gionfriddo asks, “Are there ways we could structure our lives better so both men and women can achieve a more satisfying work-life balance?”
The only male character in the play has a wife, children, and a career, yet would rather slide through life than fight to achieve rock-star success in academe. But Gionfriddo says that gay men, in particular, experience the same issue around work-life balance that women have experienced throughout history. “I know gay male couples who are trying to figure out if they can have a baby, given the high-octane careers they have,’’ she says.
That “dim, nagging awareness” that Gionfriddo felt in college — the suspicion that you can’t have it all — permeates the play, and it holds a mirror up to the audience. “The play is sort of a little bit of a Rorschach test,’’ DuBois says. “People project their own lives and sets of values on the play. Some people think certain relationships are tragic, and others think they are beautiful.”
DuBois, for his part, regards the play from the perspective of a man in his early 40s with a robust career; a partner of many years, Ben Bohen; and, so far, no children. “I feel the clock ticking,’’ DuBois says. “My partner and I are talking about it, but we still have a little time.”Patti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.