Gina Gionfriddo wades through waves of feminism in a smart new take on having it all.
Catherine (Jennifer Coombs) is a feminist academic of the type who’s learned to play the media, hawking her books on Bill Maher’s argument show and earning the moniker “the hot doomsday chick” for her writings on horror movies, torture porn and their ilk. Successful in her career but single and conflicted about it, she returns to New England after her mother, Alice, has a heart attack; there, she reconnects with a pair of old friends: Gwen (Karen Janes Woditsch), Catherine’s roommate from grad school, and Don (Mark L. Montgomery), Catherine’s boyfriend from grad school. Catherine sums up the trio’s history neatly: “I went to London, he married my roommate.”
Gwen’s grown restless raising two kids as a stay-at-home mom; Don’s grown apathetic in his life as a college dean by day and pothead by night; and along with Catherine, all three start to experience “that 40-something thing when you start thinking about the life not lived,” as Gwen puts it. What Gina Gionfriddo’s smart comedy, receiving an incisive Chicago premiere via the overdue Goodman directing debut of Kimberly Senior and a finely tuned cast, does is allow the trio to actually test the waters.
Surprisingly, it’s not the (spoiler alert) eventual Trading Places–style trial switch-off, in which Gwen takes her theater-obsessed teenage son to Catherine’s New York pad while Cathy moves Don and his younger son into her mom’s house, that feels most contrived. It’s what comes before, when Catherine teaches a summer seminar in her living room (one of scenic designer Jack Magaw’s several handsome sets), with exactly two students: Gwen and her 20-something babysitter, Avery (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason). The three banter lightly about feminist theory at every session until Alice (a delightfully twinkly and wry Mary Ann Thebus) serves martinis promptly at 5 o’clock.
If this artificial academic setting doesn’t offer many fresh arguments, it does restack them in interesting ways, with Gionfriddo contrasting Cathy and Gwen’s differing choices with the blithe lack of choices Alice saw for herself, and Avery representing a porn-friendly, hookup-culture third wave that baffles all three of her elders. Woditsch empathetically conveys Gwen’s bewildered grasping for where it all went wrong, and later for whether it actually did, while Coombs makes Catherine eminently relatable, both as the scholar and the “hot chick” wondering if she missed the greener grass.
Goodman Theatre. By Gina Gionfriddo. Directed by Kimberly Senior. With Jennifer Coombs, Mark L. Montgomery, Cassidy Slaughter-Mason, Mary Ann Thebus, Karen Janes Woditsch. Running time: 2hrs 30mins; one intermission.