David Lindsay-Abaire has an enviable record of success with a solid list of plays, and in many of them he has written rewarding roles for the actress Marylouise Burke. He’s done so again with Ripcord, his new work which is now playing on Broadway via the Manhattan Theatre Club. This time out he’s given the directorial reins to David Hyde Pierce who, in his post-Frazier days has been honing his skills as a director between acting assignments. Into the mix place a welcome return to the stage for Holland Taylor, whom I first met and admired in AR Gurney’s The Cocktail Hour.
Ms. Taylor is the best deliverer of a dry comedy line since the late Eve Arden, whom she once replaced in the one-night infamous Moose Murders.
The play crashed, but not Ms. Taylor. She’s been active onstage ever since, while spending many Emmy-nominated seasons as Mom to two of the two and a half men on the TV sitcom that bears their names. All in all, a fortuitous blending of four very special talents, creating a cocktail that is refreshing and ultimately moving as well.
The first act of Ripcord introduces us to AbbyBinder and Marilyn Dunne, who are roommates at the Bristol Place Assisted Living Facility. Both are unhappy with their accommodations. Binder desperately wanted a room of her own, Dunne would like to have had the bed by the window, but Binder got there first, and she’s got it. This act is light and fluffy, and most of its humor derives from the differences in the personalities of the two inmates. Mrs. Dunne is alarmingly cheerful, has seemingly never met a circumstance she couldn’t handle. Mrs. Binder is a private person, prefers solitude, as little physical activity as she can manage, and is a bad partner for the chatterbox with whom she’s been sequestered. We hear little about her back story, but we do learn quite a bit about Dunne’s daughter and son-in-law and the new grandson with whom they have recently presented her.
To resolve their basic differences, they bet each other that one can make the other angry or frightened first, and if so, that one is the winner. Mrs. Dunne will either win the bed by the window of she won’t. We are treated to several examples of how she goes about placing her adversary in wildly fanciful situations meant to scare her into switching beds.
It’s in these short scenes that Mr. Lindsay-Abaire trots out his whimsical ways; we laugh a lot but by intermission of this two act play I’d pretty much written it off as an extended sketch with two artful comic players keeping things afloat by their very original ways.
But no, the author has something else in mind. The second act is the play grown out of its adolescence, and though it has surprises that make us laugh, it’s the work of a fine craftsman, able to give his play substance and tenderness, to give his two stars opportunities to round out their characterizations, to make something real and understandable about the Mrs. Dunne and Binder. People don’t change, Mr. Lindsay-Abaire is entertainingly telling us, but they can grow, they can learn, they can adapt. He concludes his comedy with a twist that I didn’t anticipate, for its preamble is so well-written and played it led me successfully down the wrong path.
In support, Rachel Dratch, Glenn Fitzgerald, Daoud Hedami, and Nate Miller play the ladies’ grown children and everyone else needed to play out the variations the author has come up with to feed his two antagonists. All are up to the task, with Nate Miller particularly impressive as Holland Taylor’s prodigal son. If you see it, be patient. Reserved judgement until it’s over, for I found it well worth while waiting to see “how it all turned out.” For me, it turned out just fine.
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission.
Ripcord is playing through December 6, 2015 at Manhattan Theatre Club -MTC Stage I at City Center – 131 West 55th Street, in New York City. For tickets, call (212) 581-1212, purchase them at the box office, or online.