Early in David Lindsay-Abaire’s comedy “Ripcord,” now on stage at Northville’s Tipping Point Theatre (running time, just under two hours), an aging-but-perpetually-cheerful woman announces that she never gets angry. “It always leads to an ugly place, and I don’t care for ugly places,” Marilyn (Susan Craves) says.
This ends up being an ironic declaration, since it leads Marilyn and her grumpy assisted living facility roommate, Abby (Ruth Crawford), to make a bet that puts the ladies on the express train to ugly. For Abby, a snarky misanthrope, longs to have her own room again, while chatty, hyper-social Marilyn covets Abby’s bed by the window, which has a lovely view of a nearby park. So the two make a wager: if Abby can make Marilyn lose her temper, Marilyn will request a room change; if Marilyn can scare Abby – something Abby believes is no longer possible – they’ll switch beds.
And although the women launch into this venture with obnoxious-but-harmless pranks – such as putting their phone number on Craig’s List, with a claim that Marilyn was giving away a houseful of items and a car, and calling in a fake message from Marilyn’s daughter (Vanessa Sawson), claiming she’d be coming to take her mother out to lunch – things ramp up fast. Marilyn drugs Abby to dope her up for an involuntary skydiving excursion (courtesy of Marilyn’s family’s business), and Abby posts painful records of Marilyn’s past life all over the building. As their bemused caretaker Scotty (Dez Walker) observes in one scene, these very different women may be more suited to each other than they even realize.
To discuss the play, fellow critic Don Calamia and I (Jenn McKee) thought we’d try something new, since we both attended Tipping Point’s opening night performance of “Ripcord”: a joint review – the first of what I’d love to call Platonic Theater Date Reviews, since Don and I have attended many shows together lately – that’s ultimately a conversation between two local critics about the show.
DC: I hate to sound like a broken record, Jenn, but this is the type of show Tipping Point does best: a well-cast comedy, slickly produced.
JM: I really, really enjoyed myself at “Ripcord.” Little niggling questions arose for me about the script later on, but as I mentioned to you that night, I’m naturally stingy with laughs, yet I found myself laughing often, and quite loudly, during this show. I thought both Ruth and Susan were just terrific in their roles.
DC: I agree. I’m very familiar with Ruth’s work, but not Susan’s, and so I was quite interested in seeing how the two would interact with each other. They were a great match.
JM: They were previously on stage together for “Morning’s at Seven” at the Purple Rose – a very different show, but one that’s also focused on people in the later stages of life. Which is one of the things I like about “Ripcord” – it’s not just saying, “Getting old is hard!” It’s about these two women who have a lot of life and mischief still running strong in their veins.
DC: I agree. It shows that old age and a competitive nature aren’t mutually exclusive. And these women were sure competitive!
JM: Definitely. And I think it’s tricky, particularly in Ruth’s case, to play a curmudgeon who does these cruel, nasty things, and somehow avoid being completely written off by the audience. Crawford was very deft, I thought, at being a cold fish, but still noticeably vulnerable in subtle ways.
DC: It’s a tough role because she still has to be likable – or at least someone you can identify with, to a certain extent. Her facial expressions, I think, had a lot to do with how successful she was at pulling it off. You could always tell what she was thinking, and her vulnerability often came through with just the slightest change in her expression.
JM: Susan’s challenge, meanwhile, involves grounding the bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed person who tends, in real life, to drive many of us nuts. Marilyn’s fiercely competitive streak helps to round her out, but also, Craves is very good at riding the line between annoying and sunny, so that we like Marilyn, but we also completely understand why Abby’s so set on getting her out.
DC: Either one would drive me nuts as a roommate.
JM: Which is why it’s so fun. “Golden Girls” meets “The Odd Couple.” Did anything in the script give you pause, or take you out of the story?
DC: Just the ending. I don’t want to give anything away, but that wasn’t what I was expecting.
JM: For me, some of the characters’ attempts to win the bet strained credulity: a staged crime in the park seemed so exaggeratedly ridiculous that I couldn’t imagine it not drawing the attention of every person in the vicinity; and while the scene that gives the play its name is fun, and creatively staged (tip of the hat to set and projection designer Monika Essen), it’s still a bit of a “could this really happen?” stretch. And finally, when Scotty gets the two women to buy tickets to his haunted house, I questioned whether Abby would actually go. Yes, her purchase makes sense, since she’s looking to bribe him, but there’s no reason she has to actually cash it in. Small things, but those are the kind of narrative hiccups that can intermittently pull you out of a story.
DC: I actually didn’t have a problem with these, mostly because I simply accepted that the plot would have to move towards the type of extreme challenges it did, otherwise there wouldn’t be anything to keep us wondering just how far they would go. And I thought playwright David Lindsay-Abaire set up the title-related challenge quite well early on when Marilyn talked about the family business.
JM: Yes – he wisely laid the expositional groundwork for this to make some kind of real-world sense. If it hadn’t been the family’s business, in no way would it ever be allowed to happen.
JM: Again, it’s a little surprising that no one in the family raises an ethical issue about what’s happening. But we often have at least a toe dipped in the realm of absurdity when Lindsay-Abaire’s involved.
DC: Yep. The only one who DID raise some concerns was Marilyn’s son-in-law, Derek (Jason Bowen), but he still went along with all the craziness.
JM: Let’s talk tech. What elements stood out for you?
DC: Monika’s projections, for starters. Tipping Point received a grant to upgrade its lighting system and it included projectors – and she made great use of them. And I appreciated that the scene changes were well choreographed, always in step with what was going on in the show. You?
JM: I agree. There are wildly different locales in this play – the assisted living facility room, a haunted house attraction in a warehouse, the park – and the lights (designed by Rachael Nardecchia) and Monika’s projections and versatile set allowed for the changes to be quick and clear. Shelby Newport’s costumes were also effective, conveying personality – Marilyn’s flowy, looser vibe, contrasted with Abby’s buttoned up, walled-off persona – and making things like the skydiving scene more convincing.
DC: Yes, the wildly different locations would have been far more difficult to pull off without the projections. And that would likely have meant longer scene changes, which can kill a show’s momentum. Tipping Point’s designers did their usual excellent job in helping create the show’s characters. Even the room had its own character. I could understand why Marilyn wanted the bed closer to the window. The rest of the room was kind of bland. It made sense.
JM: And I must mention that in my experience, when I have a great time at a show, and only later start thinking of little things that didn’t quite add up in the script, it’s often a credit to not just the actors, but the director guiding the ship – in this case, James Kuhl.
DC: Yes, I agree. James – in my humble opinion – is one of the top directors we have in the community, partly because of how insightful he is at pulling all the various strings together to make a cohesive whole. Plus, every actor who works there all rave about the working conditions there. They love working at Tipping Point because of its positive, creative atmosphere.
JM: You can palpably feel his affection for these characters, as well as the material itself. He cast it perfectly, and he’s made it so fun and sweet. Any highlights for you in the supporting cast?
DC: Patrick Loos has always been a favorite, and you couldn’t help but feel sorry for him as Abbey’s estranged son, Ben, trying to reach out to his mother, only to be swatted away. And I couldn’t keep my eyes off Vanessa Sawson, whose energy reminded me of a an athlete pacing back and forth anxiously waiting to jump into the game. Again, James’ eye for casting couldn’t have been better. Oh – and Dez Walker. He’s such a natural actor. He came across as if he WAS working in an assisted living facility and having to deal with these crazy ladies.
JM: You mentioned being surprised by the end. Without giving away the nature of that conclusion, were you disappointed? Or surprised in a good way?
DC: Conflicted is more like it. I’m just not sure (the character would) do what she did. Especially so quickly. But then again, I’ve never been in her situation. And darn it – I can’t explain why without giving anything away!
JM: That’s my struggle, too. Without getting specific, I guess I’d say that it aims for something quietly, deeply meaningful, but for me, it didn’t succeed in achieving it. Not because of the actors or staging, but for the reasons you mention. I wasn’t fully convinced that the character would arrive at that level of emotional capacity so swiftly.
DC: Even the friend that was with me on our “date” had a problem with the ending. He didn’t buy it whatsoever. He wanted a different ending.
JM: I did wonder how on earth the whole thing would and should be wrapped up. I think our qualms indicate that Lindsay-Abaire never quite figured that out, either.
DC: Maybe he flipped a coin.
JM: Or made a bet.
DC: That would certainly fit the theme, wouldn’t it?
JM: So, final word: Tipping Point’s “Ripcord” is a fun, dark comedy, in the sense that it goes to some painful places while making us laugh. And while Lindsay-Abaire’s script isn’t perfect – some of those dark places are glossed over a bit too easily for my taste – Tipping Point’s production is pretty irresistible.
DC: I mostly agree. For me, the bottom line is this: Tipping Point knows its audience well, and so they’ve served a comedy with some bite to it, with all the right ingredients cooked properly to result in a very enjoyable night at the theater. I’ve now seen three of its first four shows this season, and I’m pumped to see the rest!
“Ripcord” plays at Northville’s Tipping Point Theatre through April 22. For showtimes and ticket information, visit www.tippingpointtheatre.com.