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Theatre in Review: Ripcord (Manhattan Theatre Club/City Center Stage I)

Marylouise Burke, Holland Taylor, Daoud Heidami. Photo: Joan Marcus

Is it elder abuse when the elders are doing the abusing? That's the question that occurred to me while watching Ripcord. David Lindsay-Abaire's new play has been designed as a challenge match for a pair of leading ladies of wildly different temperaments, thrown together in a series of often far-fetched situations. This is the very definition of a vehicle -- the clash of personalities is everything here -- and confirmed fans of Marylouise Burke and Holland Taylor may be able to resist probing the substantial holes in Ripcord's plot.

We are in an assisted living facility somewhere in New Jersey, where Abby Binder manages to dwell in splendid isolation. Cool, crisp, dressed in tweed suits, with nary a hair out of place, she remains aloof from the other residents, preferring to stay curled up with a good book. She occupies a double room, but, as we learn, any potential roommates, feeling the sting of her exacting manner and acid tongue, have fled. Still, she can't afford a single room and management rules that she must share. Abby, unhelpfully, insists on having someone quiet: "What about that woman without the voice box? She seems nice."

Imagine Abby's horror when she is assigned Marilyn Dunne, who is fairly busting with good cheer and mindless chatter, like an overstimulated escapee from an elderly Romper Room; she's a garrulous, boisterous, glad-handing old gal, who wants nothing more than that she and Abby should share confidences, like girlfriends. Even more irritating to Abby, who appears to have no close relations, Marilyn can't stop kvelling about her family. Producing her grandson's painting (of a fire truck), she says, "Do you know what it is?" "A pap smear?" wonders Abby.

Before long, Marilyn is openly coveting Abby's bed, which is next to the window, and soon the ladies are embroiled in a high-stakes bet: If Marilyn frightens the frigid Abby, she gets to take over Abby's bed. If Abby arouses anger in Marilyn, the latter will move to another room. The games range from the relatively simple -- placing prank phone calls, stealing earplugs, and filling in the other's Sudoku book -- to the elaborate -- drugging, kidnapping, attempted robbery, faked suicides, and the public airing of one's spouse's criminal record. "This is like some weird S&M relationship," declares Scotty, an aide at the facility.

If Ripcord were played as out-and-out farce, the escalating hostilities between the ladies might make for a satisfying evening of black-tinged comedy. But Lindsay-Abaire keeps switching tones, making a bold, and unsuccessful, bid for seriousness when Marilyn digs up Abby's estranged recovering-drug-addict son: This airing of tragedy-tinged family history is at odds with the Lucy-Ethel antics that otherwise pervade the action. The script is also packed with obvious homilies about living for today, such as Marilyn's assertion, "You can't give up on up people; if you do, it's all over." And you just know that a running gag about Abby's inability to taste food will be happily resolved under Marilyn's tutelage before the final curtain.

Still, the ladies -- total pros -- give it their all, often scaring up some legitimate hilarity: Whether telling an aspiring actor that he has no talent whatsoever, wielding a can of mace with practiced skill, or waking up in an airplane in a jumpsuit, attached to a man with a parachute, Taylor, as Abby, provides plenty of deadpan amusement. To her credit, she never gives in to the play's sentimental side nor does she ever surrender her tremendous aplomb, playing the most outrageous scene with the straightest of faces. At the same time, Abby's well-honed edge often makes her unpleasant to be around, never more so than when she gratuitously destroys that fire truck painting. When the play finally requires that she finally come around to a more positive attitude, it is scarcely believable. Burke, bubbling over with childish enthusiasm -- never more so than when plotting illegal acts or pretending to have hanged herself -- makes Marilyn a more-than-worthy antagonist. She and Nate Miller, who plays Scotty, also pull off a neat bit of double-entendre farce, emerging from a bathroom looking -- at least to a shocked bystander -- like they have just enjoyed an impromptu sexual encounter.

There are also fine, fizzy contributions from Rachel Dratch and Daoud Heidami as Marilyn's daughter and son-in-law, who become her confederates in her wilder schemes, and from Glenn Fitzgerald, who is touching in his fractious confrontation with Abby, even if it seems like a scene from another play altogether.

If the director, David Hyde Pierce, can't quite pull together the play's clashing tones, he has ensured that it has a solid production design. Alexander Dodge's scenic design includes a picture-perfect view of Abby and Marilyn's room; he also provides several amusingly realized locations in a Halloween horror house and, using projections, offers a vertiginous parachutist's-eye view of falling through space. Peter Kaczorowski's understated, seamless lighting is just right for its material. Jennifer von Mayrhauser's costumes draw a strong contrast between Abby's tailored, Republican-Womens'-Caucus look and Marilyn's casually flamboyant outfits. John Gromada's sound design includes a jazz-combo rendition of Noël Coward's "A Room with a View."

If Ripcord never really decides what kind of play it wants to be, there is the pleasure of seeing two accomplished pros at work. It's too bad that Lindsay-Abaire can't quite extricate himself from the confines of the standard odd-couple formula. Surprisingly, it is most entertaining in its wildest, least-credible moments. Otherwise, the element of surprise is missing; as soon as the author puts his conflict in place, it's all too clear how it will end up.--David Barbour

(4 November 2015)

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