Theater Review: It’s a good bet ‘Ripcord’ will make you laugh

Peggy Cosgrave, left, and Marina Re, appear in a scene from Shaker Bridge Theatre's production of

Peggy Cosgrave, left, and Marina Re, appear in a scene from Shaker Bridge Theatre's production of "Ripcord," which runs through May 26 in the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction. (Caitlin Gomes photograph) Courtesy Shaker Bridge Theatre

By MARION UMPLEBY

For the Valley News

Published: 05-22-2024 4:04 PM

Between college dorm living and the house shares that are often part and parcel of a person’s 20s, tales of unsuitable roommates abound in most friend groups.

Shaker Bridge Theatre’s production of “Ripcord,” up through May 26 in the Briggs Opera House, recasts this dynamic in the golden years of two women, mixing humor and pathos to explore the human need for connection.

On the surface, Abby Binder, a long-term resident at the fictional Bristol Place Assisted Living Facility, and Marilyn Dunne, her new roommate, could not be more different. Abby is jaded and biting, preferring the company of her houseplants to people.

In a fitting metaphor for her apathy, her medication has even caused her to lose her sense of taste. Every mouthful is like eating a mound of sand, which only adds to her grumpiness. Marilyn, on the other hand, is as extroverted as her fuchsia and lime green outfits. Even collecting her medication from resident aide Scotty is an opportunity for silliness. Unlike the other residents who’ve distanced themselves from Abby, her impenetrable optimism leaves her largely unfazed by her roommate’s acerbic attitude.

Abby is determined to reclaim the space for herself, while Marilyn is gunning for Abby’s side of the room, with its enviable surplus of sunlight. The two devise a bet: if Abby can make the unflappable Marilyn angry, Marilyn has to move out, but if Marilyn can scare Abby, she gets her bed. What follows is a series of increasingly ambitious pranks as the two residents dig their heels in, all the while hiding the bet from the good-natured Scotty.

From the get-go, playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, best known for his 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Rabbit Hole,” packs in snappy punchlines, with each member of the small cast pulling their comedic weight. Peggy Cosgrave, who plays Marilyn and previously performed at Shaker Bridge in “4000 Miles,” had me in stitches from her first entrance. Her nasal voice and goofy dances, not to mention her dramatic pronunciation of the word “Sudoku,” sparked waves of laughter throughout Saturday night’s performance. As co-stars, Cosgrave and Marina Re navigated their characters’ quippy back-and-forths with ease, while Dexter McKinney, who plays Scotty, contributed a sweet, charming presence that cut through the tension crackling between Abby and Marilyn.

The pranks Abby and Marilyn pull further intensify the laughter. The roommates outthink each other at every turn, and Marilyn proves that, despite her harmless demeanor, she’s a worthy opponent for the sly Abby. The first act culminates with a skydiving scene. Trying to pull off such a feat on stage is as comical as it sounds, but by that point I had whole-heartedly embraced the silliness.

Directed by Shaker Bridge founder Bill Coons, the play employs clever lighting in lieu of complicated set changes. Locally-based actors Gregory LeBlanc, Laine Gillespie, and Andrew Carmichael add to the physical humor and absurdity as Marilyn’s willing henchmen.

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The play’s tone quickly morphs as Abby and Marilyn go to greater lengths to win the bet. They start to probe each other’s pasts for the pressure point that will lead to victory. Comedy turns to cruelty and it becomes harder to laugh along. It’s here that the emotional potency of “Ripcord,” which was first produced in New York in 2015 as the first of the Baby Boomers were nearing 70, rises to the surface. Abby and Marilyn’s hurtful behavior begs the question of the lengths we’re willing to go to in order to get our way, and if it’s possible to go back once a line has been crossed.

By the play’s end, the protagonists’ barbed banter was starting to grate and I was silently begging them to atone for their behavior. Uncomfortable as it is to behold, perhaps Abby and Marilyn’s actions are getting at the messy nature of relationships. After all, though admonishable, their behavior reveals a shared cunning that helps the characters understand and even respect each other.

Since leaving the theater, I’ve been wondering how Abby and Marilyn’s bet relates to Lewis the skydiving instructor’s line just before the characters jump from the plane. Skydiving, he says, is a metaphor for existence:

“You get shoved out into nothingness, then it’s a long, terrifying freefall to certain death! Which is why you gotta pull the ripcord, baby! Slow yourself down and look around while you can!”

By and large we are at the mercy of life’s mysterious inevitabilities. In the face of all that powerlessness, maybe the best we can do is welcome the little pleasures that greet us along the way, be that a sheet of Sudoku puzzles, a cut-throat competition for a sunny bedroom, or an unlikely friendship.

Shaker Bridge Theatre’s production of “Ripcord” runs through May 26 in White River Junction’s Briggs Opera House. For tickets ($18-$40) or more information, go to shakerbridgetheatre.org or call 802-281-6848.

Marion Umpleby is a freelance writer. She lives in Tunbridge.