The Manhattan Theater Club presumably commissioned “Ripcord” from playwright David Lindsay-Abaire to give their faithful subscription audience a subject dear to their own hearts. The Pulitzer Prize -winning writer (for “Rabbit Hole”) has come up with an amiable if simplistic crowdpleaser, in the form of a duel of wits between “odd couple” roommates in an assisted living facility. Although smartly directed by David Hyde Pierce, the slender sitcom hangs for dear life on the appeal of its engaging stars, Marylouise Burke and Holland Taylor.
Clearly, there’s no Match.com service at the Bristol Place Assisted Living Facility for Seniors in New Jersey, where two incompatible residents have been assigned to share a double room (a sun-filled aerie, courtesy of designers Alexander Dodge and Peter Kaczorowski). The priceless perk of having her own private space is about to end for the emotionally remote and socially patrician Abby Binder (Taylor, to the manner born). Her new roomie, Marilyn Dunne (the irrepressible Burke), is a perky little critter, gregarious and friendly to a fault, the darling of the institution.
Unable to strangle Marilyn with her bare hands, as she’d clearly like to, Abby applies herself to unearthing her roommate’s weakness, the better to torment her into giving up her claim on the second bed. The disingenuous Marilyn is forthcoming with that information, attributing her sunny personality to the fact that she never gets angry.
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“There’s really no point,” she says. “It always leads to an ugly place, and I don’t care for ugly places.”
Abby counters that boast by claiming that she’s never frightened — of anything, not even death. “I’d welcome it, most days,” she says.
Armed with this information, Marilyn proposes — and Abby accepts — a bet to see who can make the other cave. Can Abby be cruel enough to make Marilyn lose her good humor and get angry? Is Marilyn clever enough to make Abby lose her composure and get scared?
Lindsay-Abaire is only sporadically successful at devising dirty tricks that the two women can use to torment one another. The more elaborate sitcom exploits, like a contrived visit to a “haunted” house and a cruel (and dangerous) skydiving stunt — which make functionaries of supporting cast members, including Rachel Dratch — are the least effective, while the simpler, more psychologically subtle ones, like a rigged “suicide” attempt, are much funnier.
The major miscalculation, however, rests in the writer’s one-dimensional depiction of his two major characters, who are clearly intended to charm the audience, not alienate a huge swath of it.
The chilly aloofness that makes Abby behave so unkindly toward her unwanted roommate is also felt by the audience, who can’t help but flinch at her selfishness and cruelty. Marilyn is meant to be the more sympathetic character, a free spirit whose hippie outfits (designed with tongue in cheek by Jennifer von Mayrhauser) attest to her kind and loving heart. And she speaks up for her soulmates when she complains: “Why can’t people be peculiar anymore?”
But darned if that cheery little busybody doesn’t eventually get on our nerves as much as she does Abby’s. If there’s anything more irritating than a roommate who won’t talk to you, it’s a roommate who won’t shut up.