Review: Ripcord

I believe Anton Chekhov wrote that if you introduce the idea of a sky diving company in the first Act, someone better be jumping out of a plane before the end of the play.

With a title like Ripcord, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything about David Lindsay-Abaire’s latest play, a 90 minute comedy (plus intermission) at the Calderwood Pavilion. Lindsay-Abaire won a Pulitzer for Rabbit Hole a play (and film) about grieving parents, and wrote the Boston-area class-conflict drama Good People which got laughs in a local production when a Southie character intoned the ultimate zip code of the bourgeoisie: “Chestnut Hill.” Just as those dramas had a few moments of levity, Ripcord¬†contains some underlying drama to give weight to the comic bickering.

Abby (a deadpan Nancy E. Carroll) is not happy about sharing her room at the senior living facility with the oppressively cheerful Marilyn (Annie Golden, the mute prisoner from Orange Is the New Black). And so they make a bet: if Abby can make Marilyn angry, Marilyn will move out. And if Marilyn can frighten Abby, Marilyn gets the bed by the window. Their pranks escalate into outrageousness and then border on cruelty. The level-headed Scotty, an employee of the nursing home, tries to mediate but eventually washes his hands of the two.

The two leads have an excellent prickly chemistry and the sharp dialogue earned each of them big laughs. Ugo Chukwu as Scotty grounds the setting through his scheduled visits and matter-of-fact line readings — and then got the biggest audience reaction at the end. The remaining three members of the cast, Laura Latreille and Richard Prioleau as Marilyn’s daughter and son-in-law and Eric T. Miller as Benjamin have more difficult roles. Marilyn’s relations are a sort of comic relief that help up the ante of the competition but they don’t rise much beyond that. In contrast, Miller is introduced as a character that shifts the tone of the play and he does so quite effectively, leaving a big impression after just one scene.

The play itself is well constructed, although Abby gets more depth and nuance through an exploration of her deadened emotional state. Marilyn’s relentless optimism is also explained but the play doesn’t go as deep with her. If there is a thesis to this work, it’s that how we deal with setbacks in life help determine our character. And, because this is a comedy, that if we put our minds to something, it’s never too late to change.

The direction by Jessica Stone is terrific. Transitions between scenes are scored to Latin music which the actors dance off to — still in character. And there is a clever staging of sky-diving that is delightful and reminds us that by enlisting the audience’s imagination, theater can produce effects as wondrous as film.

The plot is pretty simple but the jokes are constant to the point where actors had to occasionally repeat lines that got lost in the audience laughter. Not a bad problem to have to work out.

Theater review Ripcord by David Lindsay-Abaire; directed by Jessica Stone. Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion through June 25. 527 Tremont St, $20 and up; 617-266-0800, huntingtontheatre.org.

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