It has not been a good fall for elders onstage. A few weeks ago, the meddlesome 70ish character played by Marlo Thomas in Clever Little Lies nearly torpedoed her marriage while trying to save her son’s. Then came the 80-somethings James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson as residents of a home for the aged, savaging one another in a blobby revival of The Gin Game. Both plays portray the Golden Years as a time when the forgotten or rationalized sins of earlier life — unfaithful spousing, neglectful parenting — return with a vengeance, making everyone behave badly if cutely.
Though Ripcord, now at the Manhattan Theatre Club, treads similar terrain, you expect more from the playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, and you get it. The author of comedy-dramas (like Fuddy Meers and Good People) that toy with sitcom expectations but then veer elsewhere, he is obviously riffing, in Ripcord, on television templates like The Golden Girls. There are but two widows in this case: Abby, a snappish former schoolteacher who finds almost everyone else at her pleasant assisted-living facility insufferable, and Marilyn, a relentlessly upbeat dingbat. (You might as well call them Dorothy and Rose, at least at first.) Marilyn has lately moved into the sunny double room that Abby, a longtime resident, considers her private domain. If the situation feels prefabricated to produce the kind of dry put-downs that Bea Arthur mastered, at least the jokes are good:
MARILYN: Did I show you this? My grandson made it for me. Caleb. So sweet. Do you know what it is?
ABBY: A pap smear?
MARILYN: It’s a fire truck.
ABBY: Huh. I don’t see it.
Admittedly, this stuff goes on a bit too long. But after upping the ante on the women’s incompatibility for a half hour, the play is ready to take a surprising leap. Abby and Marilyn now place a bet: If Abby can make the eupeptic Marilyn angry, Marilyn will clear out of the room. (A bed elsewhere in the facility has helpfully been vacated by a recent death.) But if Marilyn can scare the unflappable Abby, Abby agrees to let her stay — and to cede her bed, the one closer to the window. You may find, as I did, that this bet is hard to square with the characters as established, let alone difficult to adjudicate; both women, it turns out, have ample practice in dissembling their emotions. Who’s to say if and when they get angry or scared? But as an expression of the human will to dominate, philosophically, if by no other means, the bet makes sense, even (or especially) in the reduced circumstances of old age. In any case, however flimsy as a premise, it is a powerful structural engine (subcategory: Can You Top This?) for a play that flirts with surrealism as it heads to weird places.
It’s not giving too much away to reveal that among those weird places are a haunted house and a skydiving plane, as if Lindsay-Abaire were trying on metaphors for the terrors of old age. Neither of these terrors competes, however, with the garden-variety disappointments of family, and when the play finally begins to point the silliness of the women’s competition in that direction it takes a satisfying emotional turn. Marilyn’s rose-colored outlook is revealed to be a reaction to marital unhappiness she would prefer to ignore; Abby’s snark is similarly a defense against the pain of a lifelong disappointment. The latter is brought to some sort of resolution in a beautiful and unexpected scene near the end in which Abby is forced to face the source of that disappointment. It’s an obvious attempt on Lindsay-Abaire’s part to backfill real feeling into the proceedings, but because he writes such good scenes it’s nevertheless heartbreaking and hopeful, suggesting the possibility that, even in old age, people can make choices that may produce a gentler landing. (Hence the title.)
But more often, like polka dots and stripes, the farce of the bet does not coordinate well with the family drama. Luckily, the performances, under David Hyde Pierce’s nicely detailed direction, go a long way toward smoothing the play’s wrinkles. Marylouise Burke, that diva of ditz, has from the beginning been Lindsay-Abaire’s muse for this sort of thing, and wears the role of Marilyn like a cozy chenille robe. As Abby, Holland Taylor is so clear and stinging you reflexively duck when she opens her mouth. (She also does amazing work physically, maintaining the pride and posture of a woman who gives no quarter to infirmity even while having to winch herself out of an easy chair.) The rest of the cast, which includes Rachel Dratch as Marilyn’s daughter, Daoud Heidami as her son-in-law, Nate Miller as an attendant with a sideline in amateur theater, and especially Glenn Fitzgerald in a small but key role, all get the style just right, even if that style seems to change from scene to scene.
It’s an eccentric play in that regard, but I’m not sure that’s a failing. As Abby points out, “Everything’s a disorder now.” She’s referring to hoarding, which Marilyn says was better described in the old days as just being a pack rat, like her Uncle Joe, who collected hair from his barber shop in towers of plastic bags. “Why can’t people be peculiar anymore?” she asks. “We thought it was funny.” I feel much the same way about Ripcord.