Review: ‘Ripcord’ at South Camden Theatre Company

Ripcord is the story of a cutthroat battle of practical jokes and dirty tricks between two women in an assisted-living residence for the elderly. Does that seem unlikely? Then you’ve never met Abby and Marilyn, who aren’t your typical little old ladies.

Virginia Barrie and Susan Dewey. Photo courtesy South Camden Theatre Company.

Virginia Barrie and Susan Dewey. Photo courtesy South Camden Theatre Company.

In David Lindsay-Abaire’s comedy, Abby has made an art of being difficult. She’s angered and alienated a string of roommates at Bristol Place Senior Living Facility, some of whom fled after only a week. Her greatest wish is to be left alone in her room, but the management has given her a new roommate named Marilyn. Marilyn is cheerful, but the nitpicking Abby can’t help but find fault with her. After Marilyn tries to engage her in friendly conversation, Abby complains “Why can’t I have someone quiet?”

Abby responds to Marilyn’s friendly greetings with scorn: “You’re just trying to rile me up, aren’t you?” But Marilyn never gets angry over Abby’s reactions, claiming “I don’t get angry.” Abby deviously looks for a way to force Marilyn into another room, and after a visit to a haunted house attraction fails to frighten Abby, the two engage in a bet: if Abby can get Marilyn angry, Marilyn will leave; if Marilyn can get Abby frightened, Marilyn will get the bed closer to the window. Abby goes to extremes to win the bet – but she doesn’t anticipate that mild-mannered Marilyn will go to extremes too.

Lindsay-Abaire first became well-known for writing dark, offbeat comedies like Kimberly Akimbo, then moved on to insightful, moving dramas like Good People (which received a strong production at the Walnut Street Theatre a few seasons back) and Rabbit Hole. Ripcord, his newest play, falls somewhere between these extremes. It’s filled with bizarre situations, but it also displays a touching empathy for its characters and their predicaments.

Susan Dewey, Steve Harding, and Virginia Barrie. Photo courtesy South Camden Theatre Company.

Susan Dewey, Steve Harding, and Virginia Barrie. Photo courtesy South Camden Theatre Company.

But it takes a while for that empathy to appear. Before that point, we see the tricks the ladies play on each other; some of them are very funny, but some are so convoluted and weird that they don’t suit the sensible nature of the characters. Much of Ripcord is hilarious – especially the payoff at the end – but the ladies’ tit-for-tat battle sometimes comes off as juvenile. Dan Hickey’s direction emphasizes the comic rapport between the leads effectively, but it drags at times; some scenes need a quicker pace to land well, especially the scenes set outside of the nursing home, which never quite mesh with the rest of the play. (One of those scenes supplies the show with its title.)

Virginia Barrie is terrific as Abby, the sort of person you hate to be around but love to watch. She delivers her lines with a biting tartness, and the twinkle in her eyes as she watches her schemes play out is delightful. Susan Barrie embodies Marilyn’s tolerance, sweetness and decency well; at the early performance I attended she had some difficulty with Marilyn’s longer speeches, but this will likely improve as the run progresses. The supporting cast has several standouts, including Steve Harding as a beleaguered attendant who tries to mediate the dispute and Frank Halbiger as a figure from Abby’s past.

Robert Bingaman’s set design for the ladies’ bedroom is attractive and credible, and Joshua Samors’ lighting complements it well. Ashley Reiter’s costumes reflect the characters’ practical attitudes and, in a few scenes, add to the absurdity.

With its eccentric premise, wacky characters and relatable situations, Ripcord is a fine introduction to David Lindsay-Abaire’s quirky comic sensibility. And South Camden’s fine production delivers the laughs.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, with an intermission.

Steve Harding and Virginia Barrie. Photo courtesy South Camden Theatre Company.

Steve Harding and Virginia Barrie. Photo courtesy South Camden Theatre Company.

Ripcord plays through Sunday, October 1, 2017 at South Camden Theatre Company, performing at The Waterfront South Theatre – 400 Jasper Street, in Camden, NJ. For tickets, call the box office at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

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