Seniors behave badly in David Lindsay-Abaire's latest comedy.
It is difficult to not be charmed by Ripcord, the newest play by Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire, now making its world premiere with Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center Stage I. A combination of witty writing, memorable performances, and smart direction ensures that there's something for everyone in this laugh-out-loud comedy overflowing with massive amounts of heart.
Ripcord is about Abby Binder (Holland Taylor), a resident at an assisted-living facility for the elderly. Although she doesn't pay enough for a private room, she's become accustomed to having one anyway. With a sharp tongue and a near sociopathic disregard for the feelings of others, Abby is not the easiest women to live with; most of her former roomies have fled in terror. Her latest, Marilyn Dunne (Marylousie Burke), won't be so easily cowed. She tries to charm Abby by chatting incessantly and arranging for her favorite food to be prepared in the cafeteria. Abby's not having it. "I don't like you," she tells Marilyn. "It's that simple." The habitually cheery Marilyn agrees to request a room change if Abby can succeed in making her angry. If Marilyn is able to scare Abby first, however, she wins the coveted bed by the window. The two elderly women prosecute this wager with the zeal of teenage boys. You'll laugh and cringe as they blast past all appropriate boundaries for women their age living in a polite society.
Lindsay-Abaire's contrivance has the feel of a particularly creative television sitcom. Of course, there's plenty of room for such unapologetic zaniness onstage, provided it is executed as well as it is here. Burke (a frequent collaborator with Lindsay-Abaire, having originated roles in the author's Fuddy Meers and Kimberly Akimbo) is at her best: She has the physicality of a young girl, bounding across the stage with the irrepressible enthusiasm of a Golden Retriever. That contrasts hysterically with Taylor's dry ex-school teacher persona. The harder Marilyn tries to win her over, the icier Abby becomes. It's a pretty well-worn premise: the newcomer with a zest for life (and questionable health) teaching the bitter crank how to be happy. Lindsay-Abaire takes this formula and adds his own idiosyncrasies, which are made delightfully manifest by a stellar cast.
Nate Miller (sporting an unkempt beard and tucked-in polo shirt) is eerily authentic as the part-time actor, full-time resident aide, Scotty. Rachel Dratch plays Marilyn's daughter Colleen, adding her own awkward earnestness to the proceedings. Daoud Heidami is a relatable innocent bystander as Colleen's husband, Derek. Glenn Fitzgerald is spectral and somewhat menacing as Abby's estranged son Benjamin. They all work in concert to realize Lindsay-Abaire's wacky vision, conveying humor through truthful performances.
This would not be possible without the steady hand of a talented director, and Ripcord has that in David Hyde Pierce. Pierce (who recently made his Broadway directorial debut with It Shoulda Been You) firmly asserts himself as one of the premier directors of comedy working in the theater today. Every beat is timed to perfection yet nothing feels forced: The action springs naturally from the characters and story.
Astute staging and design complements the innate comic abilities of this cast. Alexander Dodge's set manages to be both detailed and light on its feet for the scene transitions out of the nursing home. It's amazing how quickly settings form and melt away, as if we're watching a film. Costume designer Jennifer von Mayrhauser outfits the two leads in old-lady realness, with Taylor's costumes wonderfully reflecting her personality (they look particularly itchy and constricting).
You would have to try really hard not to enjoy Ripcord. Watching Abby, salmon-like, swim against the flow of her own joy is enough to dissuade most folks from such self-inflicted misery. Sometimes it's OK to let the sunshine in, even if you think the prospect of doing so is really corny.