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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Holland Taylor and Marylouise Burke
Photo by Joan Marcus

Even given the myriad recent changes in health care law, heart medication can be costly. Considering his new play at Manhattan Theatre Club, Ripcord, one suspects that David Lindsay-Abaire is well aware of this. He's taken a comedic premise that would seem primed for stage-shaking laughter, and delivered something that gets at best a strong handful of hearty chuckles and a few fuzzy feels. Rest assured, there's no danger that any tickers will stop ticking at this one.

There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but it's a far cry from Lindsay-Abaire's earlier MTC efforts Fuddy Meers, Wonder of the World, and Kimberly Akimbo, which did deliver the EKG-spiking goods; and even his big Broadway musical Shrek pushed harder for the yuks. This is a kinder, gentler, more socially conscious Lindsay-Abaire, the one who's written the more outwardly thoughtful Good People and Rabbit Hole, trying to return to his roots.

Maybe he should try a bit harder. Although there's plenty to like in Ripcord, which has been directed by David Hyde Pierce, it's more notable for what it lacks.

The story concerns two roommates in an assisted living facility who (spoiler!) couldn't be more different. Abby (Holland Taylor) loves silence and just wants to spend her days alone reading, and has gotten used to having a room mostly to herself. Marilyn (Marylouise Burke) is all about the chit-chat, spilling every bean about her life and wanting to know everything that makes Abby who she is.

Holland Taylor, Marylouise Burke, and Rachel Dratch
Photo by Joan Marcus

The tension between this octogenarian Odd Couple escalates softly, until, in the wake of an improbable, unsuccessful visit to a haunted house, the two make a bet. If Abby can get the preternaturally cheery Marilyn angry, Marilyn will move to a downstairs room that has, uh, just become available. If Marilyn can scare the forever-stony-faced Abby, she gets to stay in the room she's come to love.

What follows is, of course, the logical extension of this premise, with the two going to barely outlandish lengths to win the competition, roping in various other personalities like the facility's kindhearted actor–turned–care worker Scotty (Nate Miller) and Marilyn's daughter Colleen (Rachel Dratch) and son-in-law Derek (Daoud Heidami); Glenn Fitzgerald rounds out the cast in a couple of different roles that should probably not be discussed in depth here.

Except things never really get that crazy. There's a skydiving scene (long story) that flies but doesn't soar. Drugging is involved in one particularly woozy bit (though it does result in Taylor's performing a legitimately hilarious slow-motion pratfall that makes outstanding use of a serpentine bedspread.) Someone gets maced. Grandchildren's art gets besmirched. Sudoku books get filled out. Crimes by deceased husbands are either revealed or lied about, depending on whom you believe. And long-estranged family members get bizarre phone calls leading to... well, never mind.

Yes, much of this lands, but gingerly because the jokes, the personalities, and the underlying conception are all so mild. Lindsay-Abaire seems much more personally committed to the underlying relationships, and devotes his most passionate writing to, say, Marilyn's speeches expressing betrayal or Abby's perception of what she sees as her abandonment. And very little of that is, or even feels intended to be, funny, or even the setup for funny. Okay.

But mawkish sentimentality is not Lindsay-Abaire's strength as a writer, and the more he injects it here, the more at odds he feels with the people he's writing about. Rather than scripting them as zanies who'll unveil the brighter facets of a deceptively dark situation (something at which he's always excelled), Lindsay-Abaire has made them recognizable avatars for the early ravages of old age. That may be true, it may even be trenchant, but it's not automatically funny. And Hyde Pierce's studied, even sympathetic, spin on it only further emphasizes what we already know rather than ramping up the weirdness we don't. (Oddly, Hyde Pierce found more verve, and a better dramatic balance, in It Shoulda Been You, the Broadway musical he directed last season.)

That the performers have as much difficulty as they do making this work further points to the problem. Burke can be an uncorkable comic dynamo, and she's provided a key source of perpetual-motion propulsion for Lindsay-Abaire's other comedies; here, she's mismatched with Marilyn: nice, nit-picky perhaps, but not allowed or encouraged to show us the hugeness the wager brings out in this woman. Taylor is a much more sophisticated comedian, and expert at delivering puncturing punch lines of the type that aren't in abundance here; she brings a gritty, betrayed authenticity to Abby that serves her well when things turn dark later—but this character needs contrasts, not reinforcements, to hold the center.

One can't help but feel that the two stars are in the wrong roles: Burke's dizzying otherworldliness might more effectively shatter Abby's calm demeanor from the inside out, and lend much-needed heat to her many serious scenes; and a patrician playing against type as an extroverted goof could mean that Taylor would make an even more disjointed and affecting Marilyn. Miller (who was seen in the last MTC show, Of Good Stock) is a sunny, calming costar who might benefit from finding a bit more edge in Scotty, but he's in the zone, as is Dratch (though her killer Second City chops, flaunted earlier this year in Tail! Spin!, are heavily underutilized here).

Aside from the set (by Alexander Dodge), which packs some surprises in the way its key pieces (primarily the women's bedroom) exists in and moves through space, Heidami comes closest to the Lindsay-Abaireian ideal. He's locked in a series of parts that create a new stage archetype of put-on G-man, a heavy who's motivated by a light, well-meaning interior who just can't catch a break. His work is unexpected, but it's about the only thing in Ripcord that is. Those whose cardiologists have warned them against unanticipated thrills are in good hands. But when Abby complains, time after time (in what is, perhaps tellingly, a key plot point), that all the food she eats tastes like sand, everyone else not under a doctor's advisement will understand all too well what she means.

Through December 6
New York City Center Stage I, 131 West 55th Street
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