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David Lindsay-Abaire took a serious turn with his shattering 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner, Rabbit Hole, and the equally terrific Good People, which followed four years later, thoughtfully examining the respective themes of grief and class. But the plays that first put him on the map were bittersweet comedies from the Christopher Durang school of the absurd, three of them featuring Marylouise Burke.
That sublimely daffy muse returns opposite the bone-dry Holland Taylor in Ripcord, which signals a detour for the playwright back to the territory of his earlier work. But this is a lazy piece of writing without the freshness or bite of plays like Fuddy Mears or Kimberly Akimbo, recycling familiar comic situations while failing to settle on a definitive tone.
The play was commissioned by Manhattan Theatre Club, and its sitcom-style mishmash of The Golden Girls and The Odd Couple would seem to cater directly to the company’s older-skewing subscriber base. But while there’s no shortage of funny lines and inspired moments of physical comedy in director David Hyde Pierce‘s production, there’s also an air of fatigue about the script, giving the dispiriting impression that Lindsay-Abaire either banged it out in a hurry or rescued it from a bottom drawer.
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The central characters are Abby Binder (Taylor) and Marilyn Dunne (Burke), the latter a recent arrival at the assisted living facility where the unsociable Abby has enjoyed the single-occupancy comfort of her upper-floor room with a view for most of her four years of residency. Attempts by the management to induce her to share the space have invariably been short-lived once potential roommates get a taste of her acerbic tongue and brittle manner. But Marilyn proves harder to deter.
Costumer Jennifer von Mayrhauser establishes at a glance the polar opposites that these women represent. Taylor’s glacial Abby is impeccably turned out, from her tidy silver coif to her matronly wool skirt and cardigan. Marilyn is a lank-haired ragdoll in a floral-print schmatte topped by a busy poncho, her arms and legs flapping about with the same tirelessness as her cheerful nattering. She explains that, having survived a grouchy husband, she no longer gets angry about anything, making her seemingly impervious even to Abby’s most blistering insults. While Abby insists they are unsuited for cohabitation, Marilyn maintains that it’s precisely their differences that make them a good fit.
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For no reason other than Lindsay-Abaire’s need to open out the play beyond the coveted accommodation, they end up attending a haunted-house theater production whose cast includes Scotty (Nate Miller), an attendant at the retirement home. While there’s some unsubtle foreshadowing in Abby’s tender gaze at an imperiled ghost baby, the chief revelation to emerge is her claim that nothing scares her. A bet ensues over whether Abby can make Marilyn angry and Marilyn can frighten Abby. If Abby succeeds first, Marilyn will decamp to another room; if Marilyn is the victor, they both stay and she gets the bed by the window. Cue practical jokes of an increasingly callous and personal nature.
If Lindsay-Abaire had been bolder about mining the black comedy of the scenario, there might have been something more complex and interesting for Burke and Taylor to tackle than these familiar stereotypes. But the play veers inconsistently between whimsy and sentiment, with jarring notes of mean-spiritedness.
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The very same traits that make the women abrasive to one another make them also disagreeable to the audience. That’s despite the considerable affection engendered by the two seasoned lead performers, both of whom know their way around a zinger and have these characters embedded in their DNA. They make you wish the play were cleverer, or at least that the roles were nuanced enough to make you care who gets the room or whether they can learn to share it.
Pierce demonstrated last season that he could make palatable entertainment out of feeble material with his direction of the musical guilty pleasure It Shoulda Been You. Here, his timing of the comedy is serviceable at best, and some of the more elaborate set pieces escape his grasp. That’s notably the case with the overlong and unnecessary spookhouse interlude. Ditto a wacky skydiving scene that shows the extreme lengths to which Marilyn is willing to go, as well as providing the otherwise unexplored metaphor of the play’s title. But even some of the more conventional scenes are unsatisfying — the sudden arrival of a troubled figure from Abby’s past (Glenn Fitzgerald), while exposing the roots of her bitterness, plays as a halfhearted bid for pathos. And although the show owes it biggest laugh to a sight gag involving a macabre stunt pulled by Marilyn, it’s also a direct steal from Harold and Maude.
The able cast includes the always-welcome Rachel Dratch as Marilyn’s daughter and accomplice, and an amusing Daoud Heidami as her husband, increasingly uneasy about his participation in their pranks. But the madcap family antics only add to the television feel of a comedy in which the final-scene poignancy is both predictable and manufactured. Ripcord is mildly enjoyable, but it’s also a disappointingly under-developed play for a mature writer of Lindsay-Abaire’s abilities.
Cast: Marylouise Burke, Holland Taylor, Rachel Dratch, Glenn Fitzgerald, Daoud Heidami, Nate Miller
Director: David Hyde Pierce
Playwright: David Lindsay-Abaire
Set designer: Alexander Dodge
Costume designer: Jennifer von Mayrhauser
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Music & sound designer: John Gromada
Fight director: Thomas Schall
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club
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