Yes, Ripcord is candied, but there’s just enough astringency blended in to make the sugar sufficiently tangy.
Ripcord by David Lindsay-Abaire. Directed by Jessica Stone. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA, through July 2.
By Robert Israel
David Lindsay-Abaire’s two-act play, Ripcord, under Jessica Stone’s briskly paced and upbeat direction, is a well-timed (and welcome) end-of-season confection. Yes, the script is candied, but there’s just enough astringency blended in to make the sugar sufficiently tangy. And, happily, the Huntington Theatre Company performers infuse enough bittersweetness into the jokiness to keep the proceedings from sinking into the maudlin.
Of course, setting a two-hander in a nursing home has a long and opportunistic history. The set, ably designed by the talented Tobin Ost, looks downright archetypal in this regard; it reminded me of a production of Donald L. Coburn’s The Gin Game I saw decades ago. But the similarities end there. Yes, Ripcord scrounges around in the usual disheartening world of end-of-life bleakness, the disorientating hollowness that many face inside lime-green nursing centers that never adequately meet the needs of its residents. But Lindsay-Abaire has gone further and deeper in articulating the agony of the aged — his banter is terse and sharp.
The catch is that there’s a certain mechanical pitter-patter in the dialogue, and that tic becomes tiresome after twenty minutes – no, make that five minutes – once you pick up on its metronomic comic predictability. Here is the set-up: the first character asks a question that is answered glibly by the other. After the third exchange a joke pops up somewhere — at least you hear some audience members laugh — but you’re not joining in. It’s not that you missed anything all that amusing: it is that some theatergoers have been trained by the dramatist to find the conversation absurd after a bit. The giggles are generated by the playwright’s technique, not from revelations made by its characters.
Thankfully for the HTC production, the lead players are smart and skillful enough to cut against Lindsay-Abaire’s singsong, an obstacle compounded by his Odd Couple plot re-cycling. As Abby, the taciturn prune-faced scold, veteran actress Nancy E. Carroll makes terrific use of her trademark scowl. If you’ve seen her cameo appearance in the movie Spotlight you have encountered this monumental look of disdain, her way of looking at other people as if they are flies begging to be swatted. Her dramatic foil is Annie Golden’s Marilyn — ebullient, overly chirpy, dressed in bright colors in contrast to Abby’s greys and blacks. Marilyn is a flibbertigibbet, and she has the unfortunate luck to share the room with Abby. No matter: she’s a ray of bleeping sunshine, she is, and she’s determined to make the best of a contentious situation.
Thankfully, Ripcord is more than a re-roasting of Neil Simon’s moldy chestnut. At its core, Lindsay-Abaire is determined to tell a story about real people struggling through a time in their lives that holds no promise other than the inevitable — these are people sitting around in God’s Waiting Room. But thanks to Marilyn’s optimism – and a wager between the two women – the play moves along merrily under the eye of eternity, with plenty of twists and turns along the way to keep us entertained.
One of the pleasant surprises is the dramatist’s use of a play-within-the-play. The women venture into town to tour a Haunted House attraction. No, the nursing home they live in is not exactly like this spookyville mansion. But there are similarities — tragic-comic intimations of extinction, for one – that are underscored marvelously here, without ever becoming heavy handed.
The cast keeps the plot moving along, never letting predictability get the upperhand. I was particularly taken by Ugo Chukwu’s Scotty, who serves the bickering yin/yang pair, delivering their medication with amble heaps of homespun advice. He’s a warm and likeable fellow, a doormat at times, but he works his humanistic magic by smoothing (most of) the conversational rough edges out, wrapping the steel barbs hurled by Marilyn and Abby in velvet so that not too much blood is split.
If only Scotty could do something about the play’s overwrought campiness, scenes of jitterbugging that should be pared back: any antic that repeatedly milks the audience for nostalgic laughs should be light and lively — and used sparingly. Still, given the dour, sour, and maniacal farce that is American reality, Ripcord offers some refreshing respite. In a world that has left odd in the rear view mirror, a comedy about mismatched roomies facing mortality comes off as inspirational.
Robert Israel writes about theater, travel, and the arts, and is a member of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.