Attention Must be Paid: Tipping Point Theatre’s “Ripcord”

Originally published by Encore Michigan.

One day you wake up, and you find you relate to characters and situations that just the other day felt safely, pleasantly distant and remote. In our home, we have a nightly ritual of watching an episode of a (now) classic sitcom right before going to sleep: Everybody Loves Raymond, Will & Grace, Friends, and increasingly The Golden Girls. I always had finite patience for the self-absorbed whimsy of Friends, and, now, I can barely stomach the show. Once, I thought Raymond’s Marie and Frank Barone were an affectionately nuanced portrayal of meddlesome parents; now, I completely relate to their affable frustrations over “young people” who don’t appreciate their elders’ hard-won advice and perspective. And The Golden Girls? Well, let’s just say, someone get the lanai and the caftan ready. I’m on my way.

It is through this lens, then, that I approached TippingPoint Theatre’s Michigan premiere of Ripcord!, a comedy by David Lindsay-Abaire (Pultizer Prize-winner for Rabbit Hole). Ripcord!, on its surface, is Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? if written by someone who actually likes women. Similarly, the narrative is an escalating emotional arms race between two grand dames, aging in place and trapped in one location (in this instance, one of those “high end” independent senior living facilities). However, unlike Baby Jane, the women have agency from having “seen it all” (think Elaine Stritch’s seminal performance of Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here”); they wear some kicky resort clothes (think Golden Girls with better tailoring and fewer shoulder pads … fun costume design by Shelby Newport); and no one gets served a pet parakeet on a platter (although there is a LOT of business with food being brought up from the cafeteria … I kept waiting).

The Blanche and Baby Jane of Ripcord! are Abby (played with broken glass sparkle by Ruth Crawford) and Marilyn (a heartbreakingly impish Susan Craves). Abby has lived in the same room for four years, mostly alone, as her brusque bravado drives off anyone unfortunate enough to be assigned her roommate. Along comes Marilyn, a ray of sunshine with an iron will – Little Orphan Annie as designed by Sun Tsu. In the 80s, yes, Abby would have been played by Bea Arthur, and Marilyn by Betty White. In this contemporary milieu, Crawford and Craves couldn’t help reminding me of Jane Lynch and Carrie Fisher, respectively. I’m uncertain whether that was intentional on the part of director James Kuhl and his production team or just happenstance, but that dynamic contrast in type and in look works really well.

Marilyn is determined to melt the permafrost around Abby’s cold heart, and Abby is hell-bent to get this bounding golden retriever puppy-meets-Marquis de Sade jettisoned from her life forever. Or,at least have her relocated to a newly vacated room downstairs. Consequently, they place a bet. If Marilyn can scare Abby (who claims no fear), she gets the better bed in their room with an epic view of the park and all the sunlight she can stand. If Abby succeeds in making the relentlessly chipper Marilyn angry, Marilyn vacates the premises, only to be seen at the occasional bingo night. Hijinks ensue.

As plays go, Ripcord! is, in fact, more sitcom than Broadway. The narrative is too episodic by half, and thinly drawn supporting characters come and go primarily as forgettable story beats and harmless complications. However, Abby and Marilyn–built as they are on familiar, near-mythological archetypes (broken monarch, trickster god) – are the show. Lindsay-Abaire wisely commits the lion’s share of the piece to exploring the debilitating isolation and the liberating joys of aging, as evidenced through the pranks, shenanigans, and outright cruelty these women exact upon one another.

At the end of the day, neither Abby nor Marilyn much gives a rat’s-patootie what anyone thinks of them. That is refreshing. Otherwise, we would have yet another tired male-crafted narrative pitting one woman against another. Ripcord! pulls just shy of that, offering a study of two humans who have suffered devastating setbacks, chiefly at the hands of their own spouses and/or children, and who find themselves thrown together like randomly assigned college roommates in their “golden years.” Together, they discover their authority and their appreciation for each other through the artificial tension such circumstances naturally bring.

All of that said, this is the kind of show that TippingPoint does so well. Acerbic, witty, expertly paced, and polished, Ripcord! rarely misses a beat. At Saturday night’s performance, there were some minor flubs here and there, and an actor or three stepped on each other’s lines–all of which will disappear as the run progresses and this already incredible ensemble tightens the performance. Director James Kuhl has cast the show expertly, with two leads who take the sitcom tropes the script hands them and turn in masterfully crafted, compelling character turns – believable humans who are as delightful, maddening, confounding, and damn funny as any family member you may get trapped with at a Thanksgiving dinner.

Dez Walker is great deadpan fun as Scotty, the nursing attendant and foil for the worst these two rivals can dish out. I don’t want to spoil the surprises, but let’s just say their warfare may or may not include skydiving, haunted houses, surprise relatives, muggings, CraigsList phone pranks, and drug-laced peach cobblers. Walker’s reactions to it all are priceless and pleasantly understated. At times, I felt I was watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon brought to life.

Vanessa Sawson, Jason Bowen, and Patrick Loos round out the cast, playing an assortment of family members and haunted house performers (there is an ironic joke in there somewhere). They all do fine work and have some sharply comic moments. Bowen is comedy gold as said mugger who devises an unfortunate and hysterical use for the “legs” in his pantyhose mask.

The ensemble suffers at times, however, from tonal inconsistency. Whereas Craves, Crawford, and Walker imbue their characters with a believability and a subtlety that contrasts nicely and, at times, poignantly with the proceedings, the other performers occasionally devolve into a broader comic style that felt a bit jarring. It’s a minor quibble and is as likely a function of the play’s construction as the performance itself.

The cast is aided and abetted by clever, kitschy, surprising production design. As noted, the costumes by Newport are divine. The efficient and evocative set by Monika Essen is comprised of a series of modular units that can serve as the independent living facility, haunted house, park, etc. Essen supplements the physical set with some eye-popping projections and some nifty animation, all of which creates a captivatingly immersive experience.

Sonja Marquis has a blast with the sound design, weaving techno, hip hop, and some delightfully daffy dance remixes (Carmina Burana? BRILLIANT!) into the musical cues. I would love to download that soundtrack. I particularly appreciate that Marquis resists the urge to employ “age appropriate” music (whatever the hell that would even mean) and delivers a rocking score that gives as good as it gets and adds a fantastic level of manic urgency to the leading characters’ conflict. I also geeked out that the poster and program cover (by graphic designer Quintessa Gallinat) go for POP! over lace doilies, with a fab Roy Lichtenstein spin on the play’s iconography. Well played, TippingPoint!

If, like me, you feel your age every time you read a headline, turn on the radio, or just get out of bed in the morning and if you wonder sometimes whether all this running about and people-pleasing we do in life really matters, you will love Ripcord! If you think these experiences and feelings are still tucked away behind the nebulous and protective curtain of “your future,” then you must see Ripcord! Now. Let’s kick ageism in its collective ass. This isn’t a play about “old people.” This is a play about all of us and the need for kindness and empathy and acknowledgment in. the. moment. Attention must be paid

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“She’s made of salad and Smart Water.” Office Christmas Party

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’m not always sprung on the big ol’ dumb, vulgar, “high concept” (ironic turn of phrase) film comedy.

There is an army of moviegoers who can quote every line from the National Lampoon’s Vacation series, Airplane!Neighbors, The Naked Gun or Horrible Bosses. I’m not that fellow.

There are exceptions for me – Bridesmaids, the FIRST Bad Santa, Bad Words, Borat. Maybe the naughty movies I like all must start with the letter “B”?

I’m no prude, and I don’t mind seeing some big screen debauchery, as long as it’s in service to a story. And if the ribald flick in question celebrates a misfit or two, giving the marginalized among us a chance to shine? All the better.

Let’s just say I’m shocked how much I enjoyed Office Christmas Party. On its surface, it looks like a frat boy fever dream (and it sort of is), waving the PARTY! bro culture flag from a wobbly pedestal of cheap beer kegs. Yet, something else is afoot in this particular entry of a tired, yet lucrative, genre: kindness.

The narrative is feather weight. A tech company in Chicago struggles to find its footing after the death of its founder amidst the Cain-and-Abel feuding of his two children. T.J. Miller (Deadpool) plays Clay, a Millennial ne’er-do-well with a Santa-sized heart-of-ADHD-gold, and Jennifer Aniston is an arsenic-in-the-eggnog hoot as sister Carol, a Scrooge in training for whom the holidays are a mind-numbing drain on the firm’s bottom line.

With an interest solely in her standing with the company board and with Wall Street, Carol cancels all holiday festivities and threatens drastic job cuts throughout the charmingly dysfunctional organization. (A timely holiday tale this!) Consequently, Clay schemes with his merry band of misfit colleagues (Jason Bateman, Oliva Munn, Kate McKinnon, Rob Corddry, Vanessa Bayer, Sam Richardson) to throw the be-all-end-all of office holiday shindigs, in an effort to save their year-end financials (and thereby the company) by wooing a potential new client (Courtney B. Vance, simultaneously slumming and classing the film up, a deceptively understated and utterly charming performance).

The titular party itself – ostensibly the centerpiece of this admittedly overlong movie – is perhaps surprisingly not the film’s high point. There are funny bits once the sozzled chaos kicks in, but mostly the soiree itself is cluttered and silly, not particularly funny, badly filmed, and occasionally too gross to be believed. However, I saw the party the way I see the shark in Jaws: a necessarily evil around which to hang the much better and more engaging story elements and performances. You know the shark is coming, but it is the suspense of getting there and the fall-out after the fact that is really interesting.

Aniston fares best in the enterprise, taking what is essentially an extended cameo and ruling the film with a turn of her stiletto heels and a flick of her acid tongue. I never bought Aniston as “America’s sweetheart” – from Friends through the Enquirer headlines to a host of empty-caloried rom-coms. As “America’s slightly wounded, understandably-pissed-off mean girl,” she’s a stitch. She fires off the film’s best lines and moments, from her showdown with a bratty Cinnabon-stealing rugrat in an airport lounge to her Russian-speaking, krav maga throwdown with three mob enforcers in a South Side speakeasy (yes, you read that correctly). Bateman deadpans to her would-be opponents, “Be careful. She’s made of nothing but salad and Smart Water.”

Bateman, as the company’s chief tech officer, is less smarm, more broken-hearted sweet than I’ve ever seen him. That color looks good on him. Munn is world-weary, observant fun as Bateman’s development partner, whose feminist savvy and tech smarts ultimately save the day for all.

As a meddlesome, anxiously PC human resources manager, McKinnon wrings mirth and sparkle from every moment she’s onscreen (of course!), but, for goodness’ sake, let’s stop saddling the woman with wigs that make her look like she stepped off an episode of The Lawrence Welk Show. It’s part of her gimmick, but it sure isn’t necessary to making her riotously funny.  Funny – edgy and relatable – is just in her soul. About her beloved mini-van, McKinnon’s character opines, “It’s a Kia. It’s what God would drive.”

(And, while we’re at it, let’s cast McKinnon, Aniston, and Munn in a cerebral comedy that doesn’t involve wigs nor an EDM-thumping soundtrack nor body shots nor gratuitous nudity. The three of them have dynamite chemistry together and deserve a better film.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This brings us to Miller. I suspect, in part, this film has been engineered as a marketing ploy to jet fuel his minor-key career into the junk blockbuster comedy movie star stratosphere (e.g. Kevin Hart, Adam Sandler, and a bunch of other un-funny men whose careers cause me mental anguish). I don’t think it’s going to work. To his credit, Miller subsumes himself to the ensemble, but he is also really one note. Playing the shaggy-haired, spoiled, left-of-center party boy is a limited run, and Miller may have already overstayed his welcome. Perhaps, not unlike Office Christmas Party, he will surprise us, embracing more of the nerdy sweetness that makes him endearing and losing the raise-the-roof shenanigans that make him obnoxious? Time will tell.

As for Office Christmas Party, underneath its holiday gross-out gimmicks, this is a movie where people care about one another and where the existential threat of losing one’s job has meaning beyond setting up the next joke. Where Miller and company succeed is in the camaraderie and care they show their fellow man. Directed with workmanlike vigor by Will Speck and Josh Gordon, sitcom stupid set-ups abound, but there are lovely quiet moments as well. For instance, Bateman’s office-rounding as he starts his day is filled with gentleness, redirecting various associates as they bully one another or spin perilously out-of-control under the white hot glare of office politics. Furthermore, as the film devolves into broad comic silliness (car chases and the like), the primary characters still worry about each other, and their actions (extreme and cartoonish as they are) still come from a place of compassion. This might be one of the first office Christmas parties where you’ll want to spend more time in the office and less time at the party.

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bluebelllofts2bAnd speaking of Christmas, enjoy this lovely Old Type Writer column by my talented mom Susie Duncan Sexton titled “Christmas Gift! Christmas Gift!” (here).

Talk of the Town publishing editor Jennifer Zartman Romano writes in her intro, “Soon, the Historic Blue Bell Lofts, a senior housing facility, will be completed in Columbia City. In the meantime, columnist Susie Duncan Sexton reflects on her memories of the Blue Bell factory.”

Here is an excerpt from the piece: “Observing that impressive restoration feat from afar thrills my very soul. I look forward to grabbing a hard hat and touring the completed facility sooner rather than later. I have driven by the Whitley Street location multiple times. The lump in my throat and the beating of my heart transform into a beaming smile on my old wrinkled, liver-spotted face. Blue Bell, Incorporated has been my life since birth! Happy to have been a part of this metamorphosis!” Read the column by clicking here.

bluebelllofts1b________________________________

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.