Genre: Play; Starring: Holland Taylor, Marylouise Burke, Rachel Dratch; Director: David Hyde Pierce; Author: David Lindsay-Abaire; Opening Date: Oct. 20, 2015
The sight of two septuagenarians jumping out of an airplane might bring to mind The Bucket List and comedies like it, but Pulitzer winner David Lindsay-Abaire’s new play Ripcord at Manhattan Theatre Club serves up a lot more than condescending “look at those geezers go!” hijinks. Yes, there’s geriatric sky-diving, and at one point, a woman with a known heart condition gleefully runs screaming from an evil clown in an amateur haunted house, but the real crowd-pleasing action happens when the leads are sitting in their room in an assisted living facility arguing over the good bed by the window.
Ripcord announces itself as a sitcom-ish romp as soon as Marilyn (Lindsay-Abaire favorite Marylouise Burke) announces herself with a “Here I am!” in the first scene. Like most wacky new neighbors, she’s greeted with annoyance and dread by the resident crank, Abby (Legally Blonde’s Holland Taylor), who instantly loathes Marilyn’s unrelenting cheeriness and constantly flapping gums. Abby has driven away plenty of previous roommates with her misanthropy, but she meets her match in Marilyn, who claims she’s lost the ability to get angry and thus is impervious to Abby’s attacks. Eventually, the two make a bet: If Abby can make Marilyn angry, Marilyn will move to another room. If Marilyn can truly frighten Abby, who claims she’s lost the ability to feel scared, Abby will give her the better bed.
The premise seems simple and the stakes low, but it soon becomes obvious that Abby is no lovable grump; she goes from pulling mild pranks, like doing Marilyn’s beloved Sudoku, to shockingly personal attacks. And Marilyn isn’t just the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of the retirement home, as she first seems — she drafts her enabling daughter (SNL’s Rachel Dratch) and dopey son-in-law (Daoud Heidami) into insane schemes like drugging Abby and pushing her out of a plane.
If it sounds like the play strays too far into sitcom logic, it absolutely does. The excursions to the aforementioned haunted house and jump-plane are good opportunities to show off some clever staging by director David Hyde Pierce and give something for the underutilized Dratch and Heidami to do, but it takes away from the reality of our odd couple. It turns out, of course, that there are compelling reasons for Abby’s sour outlook and for Marilyn’s determined positivity. Even as the script explores some strong reflections on reclaiming experiences that the women have put behind them, the razor-sharp barbs never stop flying at a clip worthy of The Golden Girls — and Holland Taylor and Marylouise Burke play gloriously to type. Yes, Ripcord feels too much like a sitcom, but it’s a sitcom where the live studio audience is genuinely laughing. B+