by Mike Hoban
‘Ripcord’ – Written by David Lindsay-Abaire. Directed by Jessica Stone. Scenic Design by Tobin Ost; Costume Design by Gabriel Berry; Lighting Design by David J. Weiner; Sound Design and Composition by Mark Bennett; Projection Design by Lucy Mackinnon. Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St. Boston through July 2
There probably aren’t many plays – even comedies – that could include a scene as implausible as having a septuagenarian drugged, kidnapped, and tricked into jumping out of an airplane without straining its credibility to the point of snapping, but David Lindsay-Abaire manages to not only pull it off but make it convincing in his very funny and ultimately touching Ripcord, now running at the Huntington Theatre through July 2. That scene is just one of the many horrors that two female roommates inflict upon one another to great comic effect as they each try to win the bet to settle a turf battle set in an assisted living facility.
Abby (Nancy E. Carroll) is a cantankerous older woman who, through her wanton hard-heartedness and ability to manipulate the facility’s drunken administrator, has managed to live alone in her two-bed room for four years. Enter Marilyn (Annie Golden), her endlessly chatty and hopelessly cheery new bunkmate to upset the order of her isolationist utopia. Abby’s tried and true method of dishing out verbal jabs to drive out roommates (such as when Marilyn lovingly tells Abby how happy the sounds of police and fire engine sirens make her grandson, and she responds, “That’s creepy. Is he alright? In the head I mean?”) seemingly have no effect on Marilyn, whose ability to deflect abuse comes from years of living with a violent husband as much as her sunny disposition.
When it becomes clear that Abby’s hostility won’t get her to leave, Marilyn proposes a bet. If Abby can get Marilyn to lose her temper, she will go to another room in the facility. And if Marilyn can scare the hell out of Abby, Marilyn gets the bed next to the window overlooking the park. Although the sitcom-ish premise might make one draw the inevitable comparisons to a Golden Girls or Odd Couple episode, fear not. Lindsay-Abaire adds enough arsenic to the dialogue (including some well-placed F-bombs) and dramatic heft to the plot to keep it from becoming overly cute. Once the bet is made, Marilyn proves to be just as diabolical as Abby, with the pranks on each other becoming increasingly hostile, emotionally lethal – and hilarious. So despite the plethora of terrific one-liners delivered in the first act, we can feel that the source of that mean-spiritedness will be eventually be revealed. And given the quality of the writing, we can bet that it’s not going to be some trite Hallmark Channel explanation either.
This is an extremely well-structured comedy, and director Jessica Stone gets strong performances from the cast, particularly the leads, Carroll and Golden. Abby’s bilious commentary, while very funny, is delivered with an undercurrent of seething anger by Carroll, who is also gifted with brilliant comic timing. Golden too, gives a layered performance in a broadly comic role, gamely concealing the deep hurts of the past with her bubbly optimism.
Set designer Tobin Ost looks as if he may have had as much fun as the cast, especially when he leaves the assisted living facility behind to visit a Halloween spook house and the aforementioned skydiving scene, which was truly inspired. Ripcord is one of those rare comedies that can be zany without lowering the intellectual bar, while still packing an emotional punch. For more info, go to: http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/