There’s a lot of good craftsmanship at work in Huntington Theatre Company’s production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Ripcord.” Director Jessica Stone and her six-person ensemble, as well as a design team led by scenic designer Tobin Ost, acquit themselves well in this farce about mismatched roommates at an elder care facility. It’s an emphatically realized, slickly executed production.
But “Ripcord” is a nasty little nub of a play, a sitcom scenario padded out to fill two thin acts. It coasts by glibly on a series of bad-roommate gags for most of its run time, before making an awkward and unearned lunge for the heartstrings.
The setup is that grumpy, withdrawn Abby (Nancy E. Carroll) is used to having a room to herself and is displeased when the ever-chipper Marilyn (Annie Golden) is assigned to be her roommate. A recent death at the facility has opened up another space, but Marilyn refuses to budge — she likes all the natural light in Abby’s room, and the view of a nearby park.
On this reed of motivation, she agrees to a not-so-friendly wager with Abby. If Marilyn can make the unflappable Abby truly angry, the newcomer will move out. But if Marilyn can frighten the ice-cold Abby, she not only gets to stay but she wins the preferred, window-side bed.
There’s the gag with the itching powder in the bed sheet. The prank Craigslist post that causes a phone to ring off the hook. And a series of increasingly cruel capers by each woman that makes it extremely hard to empathize with either. Before long, family members are dragged into it and things get uncomfortably messy, leaving almost everyone involved smelling pretty bad. There are regular laughs, mainly cued by Abby’s cutting remarks, but it’s quickly wearying to watch so much nastiness.
At the end of the first act, one faction engineers a stunt that — while staged wonderfully, with actors dangling in midair on wires and Lucy Mackinnon’s projection design coming into play — strains credulity so far as to push the proceedings into the realm of farce. Though interstitial dance numbers that feature the actors seemingly out of character do emphasize the stylized nature of this world, the play in other ways reaches for the naturalism implied by Ost’s detailed and highly functional set.
When things take a hard turn for the maudlin, it feels like the playwright is being emotionally manipulative; when that beat turns out to be just a prelude to another “gotcha” moment, it simply means the bad-faith move serves different ends. By the time a newly introduced character reveals some of the backstory behind Abby’s emotional reserve, I was past rooting for either lady to win. I just wanted their bad bet to be over.
Carroll does play that moment wonderfully. And Golden is impressive in her efforts to make Marilyn affably quirky rather than merely annoying — her smile lights up the stage.
The play debuted last year, and plays locally at the Calderwood Pavilion through July 2 after its initial run was already extended.
Playwright Lindsay-Abaire, a South Boston native, is decorated with multiple Tony Award nominations and the Pulitzer Prize for “Rabbit Hole,” which the Huntington has also produced. Here, he glances over at some rich territory to explore. There's an interesting suggestion that Abby and Marilyn’s emotionally abusive relationship echoes the dynamic in Marilyn’s marriage, for instance. So what about this? And what can we learn about these characters from their professed aversions to anger and fear? These questions go largely unexplored, in favor of sketch comedy.
Laura Latreille and Richard Prioleau make the most of their turns as Marilyn’s gung-ho daughter and reticent son-in-law, and Ugo Chukwu sparkles as the eminently reasonable resident aid who puts up with everything. Stone tries valiantly to navigate the play’s clashing tones, and sequences like a visit to a Halloween attraction and an airplane ride (plus what comes after) are rendered onstage vividly and with creativity.
I left the theater feeling that I’d like to see this entire creative team, justly esteemed playwright included, at work on different material. But I’d prefer to bail out of “Ripcord.”
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