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.

“It has been seven days since I ran out of ketchup.” The Martian (2015 film)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

So, does everyone at NASA fist-bump and wave their hands around and holler every time something goes well? “Hey, gang, I ordered a pizza!” Orgy of bourgeois whooping and wailing. “Look, I just got this snazzy shirt at Kohl’s!” Crowd goes wild; face-painting ensues. “Well, I’ll be … we actually got a rocket launched without showering the American south-land in carcinogenic debris!” Crazy dancing in the aisles, with Clint Howard, Billy Bob Thornton, Gary Sinise, and Bill Paxton sharing a do si do to Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American.”

If the movies are to be believed, NASA is just rife with bro-tastic little celebrations every time anyone reboots their computer without a minor incident. Who is to blame for this cinematic cliche? Ron Howard with the exceptional-but-not-aging-well Apollo 13? Michael Bay with the DOA-turd-about-a-deadly-meteor-with-an-even-turdier-theme-song-by-Aerosmith Armageddon? Golden-Girls-in-space Space Cowboys with a mincing manopausal crowd of Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, and James Garner? Or is it all some form of jingoistic retribution for Kurbrick’s incisive and timeless Dr. Strangelove? Whatever may have started it, I hate it. Please make it stop.

Yet, if those are the only false moments (and they are) to sully Ridley Scott’s otherwise (mostly) great film adaptation of Andy Weir’s bestseller The Martian, so be it.

(But there are a lot of unwarranted fist bumps in the flick. Ridley Scott, you know better.)

I went into the Matt Damon starrer accompanied by a clutch of folks who’d read and loved the book (I hadn’t read it; nor do I plan to). I was dreading the dissection that would follow – “why was this left out?” or “I can’t believe they cast so-and-so as so-and-so” or “that moment was just ruined…” Blessedly, the literary-minded in our happy band were pleased with the Hollywood outcome; FYI for those of you who are like-minded peeps.

I also approached this film thinking, “Do we really need another Robinson Crusoe in space. I’ve already lived through Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as ‘no-no-no-no’-ing astronauts (Gravity) and then Matthew McConaughey as an ‘all-right-all-right-all-right-ing’ space-farer (Interstellar). And now Matt Damon with his snub-nosed, soccer-coach-next-door glib bullsh*t?!” No, no, no, no, no!!

(Let it be said, that I liked both of those blockbusters, though you might not catch that from my snark.)

Well, Damon is plenty glib and snub-nosed in The Martian, but Scott knows how to compose and depict a narrative (e.g. Gladiator, Alien, Blade Runner, Silence of the Lambs, even Exodus: Gods and Kings) about an intrepid soul, relying on nothing but wits and moxie surviving extreme circumstances. This is a film that benefits, rather than suffers, from Damon’s workaday commonality.

It helps that Scott has stacked the supporting cast deck with pros like Jessica Chastain (is she typecast to appear in every space exploration and/or paramilitary movie now?), Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. They all do quite well with very little to do, striking just the right balance of collaborative indifference and knowing tension as they work round the clock to bring Damon’s Mark Watney home.

You see, in the not-too-distant future, we figure out how to get a series of manned missions to Mars to explore the landscape and to escape Fox News (ok, I made that last part up). A nasty storm kicks up on the Red Planet, and Chastain has to make the tough decision to grab her crew and head back to Earth, after Damon’s Watney is swept away in a squall of crimson dust.

Except … Watney isn’t dead. And he has to spend the next year surviving on his own, terra-firming the alien landscape, growing potatoes (subtle immigrant, stranger-in-a-strange-land metaphor there), listening to the horrid (to him) disco music his crew-mates left behind, and maintaining an acerbic video diary so that he doesn’t sail completely off the deep end.

I’m not a fan of Damon’s (could you tell?). He seems like someone with whom I would have gone to high school. Doesn’t make him a bad soul (I appreciate his politics, generally, though he’s had some goony missteps lately), but I just don’t ever see him as an actor or a movie star.

In this case, though, that blah everydude quality suits the film nicely. Damon’s Watney is an average guy with an exceptional level of scientific and engineering knowledge, and his unyielding desire to survive comes not from some pixie-ish joie de vivre but from an obsessive need to solve one mathematical conundrum after another. Damon plays those notes beautifully, and it is only in those rare instances when deep-feeling angst is required that Damon becomes a caricature of himself. (I do wonder what someone more gleefully, introspectively nebbish-y could have done with the role? Alas, we shall never know.)

Fortunately, those “actorly” moments are few and far between, and the script gifts Damon with some delightful deadpan zingers, like, “it has been seven days since I ran out of ketchup” while he is coating one of his ubiquitous potatoes in Vicodin.

I enjoyed The Martian, but I wasn’t enthralled by The Martian. I feel (not unlike the recently reviewed Black Mass) that I’ve seen this story told a few too many times lately, and I don’t know that there is much wonder or ingenuity left in the telling.

What I enjoyed about the film most? The edgier, more satiric bits – like a Vonnegut novel waiting to burst from the middle-America conventionality of the plot. Daniels notably has a winking quality that would have fit nicely in the aforementioned Dr. Strangelove, and a number of Damon’s video diary asides take some lovely swipes at our insular privilege as a culture.

Naughty me, but if we’d gotten just a smidge more of that, this movie would have been a knockout.

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Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Drawing of yours truly as a superhero by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

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 Bookbound, Common 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.

Maybe next time, McCarthy. I believe in you. Tammy (2014)

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Melissa McCarthy’s latest comedic opus Tammy is like a crass redneck cousin to Barbra Streisand’s/Seth Rogen’s similarly themed The Guilt Trip. That may seem like a slam. It’s not. I enjoyed both movies, flawed though they are, particularly given that exceptional performers can sell the thinnest of scripts.

Where McCarthy stumbles a bit more, however, is that she helped write the slight script for her starrer. Ouch.

What other movies are in Tammy‘s DNA? If Nebraska and McCarthy’s own Identity Thief had a cinematic baby, it wouldn’t be that far afield from Tammy, which depicts a shaggy dog heroine (McCarthy, natch) on the lam with her bewigged and besotted (as in drunk) granny (Susan Sarandon!). Heck, throw in a touch of Sarandon’s own twenty-five-year-old summer blockbuster Thelma and Louise for good measure.

Tammy’s life is a mess. She nearly totals her jalopy when she hits a deer on the way to her crappy fast food job. (In one of the movie’s more touching moments, Tammy lays down on the highway, gets face-to-snout with the deer, and talks the little fellow back into sprightly, white-tailed-scampering-across-a-field life. I liked that part. A lot.)

Tammy gets fired from said crappy job for being late (because of the deer miracle), throws ketchup packets at her now-erstwhile boss (McCarthy’s real-life husband and the film’s director Ben Falcone), comes home early to discover her hubby (a suitably golf-caddy skeezy Nat Faxon) serving a romantic dinner to her neighbor (Toni Collette, wasted here), and runs home (two doors down) to her mother (Allison Janney, dependably ringing gold from nothing).

Sarandon’s character, who lives in Tammy’s mom’s spare bedroom, already has a suitcase packed and can’t wait to provide the ancient Cadillac and limited funds ($6700) necessary for her and her granddaughter to skedaddle from small-town life and go see the spectacle that is Niagara Falls.

Just like The Guilt Trip (where Streisand’s character wanted nothing more than to see the Grand Canyon), all manner of comic disruptions keep Sarandon’s and McCarthy’s characters from their destination. Like Rogen and Streisand, Sarandon and McCarthy also end up in a barbecue restaurant where Sarandon meets cute with a potential beau (Gary Cole, playing it rather subtle for once). Unlike The Guilt Trip, Tammy heads in a decidedly cruder direction, involving Cole and Sarandon and the backseat of that decrepit Cadillac. Ewww.

(The fact that I’m giving point/counterpoint between two failed comedies released within 18 months of each other is indicative of two things: 1) my relative lack of taste and 2) the fact that Hollywood really has no new ideas. It could be worse. I could be reviewing Transformers.)

Tammy is entertaining. I laughed heartily at McCarthy’s antics (just as I did during The Heat or Bridesmaids). I also found myself moved by her ability to telegraph so pointedly the hurt of someone who lives on the margins, either by choice or happenstance. McCarthy can inhabit a character like no other. Problem is it’s the same character, and, while I like and can relate to this person she plays (and her penchant for wearing Crocs), I’d like to meet someone else … soon.

Sarandon is a hoot, particularly in her early scenes, also offering us a caustic comic portrait of someone who refuses to be consigned to the periphery. Her performance is derailed mostly by the script,which turns her into a Golden Girls sexpot for no discernible reason at the midway point.

Kathy Bates sparkles as Sarandon’s pet food store magnate/lesbian cousin (yeah, it’s that kind of movie) who lives in one of those beachfront homes that only exist in Hollywoodland. She gives Tammy and her grandma a warm meal, a roof over the heads, and one fabulous July 4th wingding. Despite the improbability of Bates’ surroundings, she grounds the movie just as it seems likely to run right off the rails, as Bates beautifully walks that fine line between satire and heartache that has been her specialty since Misery.

Mark Duplass (Zero Dark Thirty) is also a source of warmth as Tammy’s suitor Bobby, cursed as he is to babysit his philandering father (Cole). The quiet scenes between McCarthy and Duplass are when the film is at its finest (not unlike those charming moments between Kristen Wiig and Chris O’Dowd in the aforementioned Bridesmaids). All the cartoonish chaos stops for a moment, and two believably broken souls connect as kindred spirits.

That is the movie I hoped to see tonight. Maybe next time, McCarthy. I believe in you.

[NOTE: I’ve been suffering from a wicked cold this entire holiday weekend, and this movie was viewed as a late-afternoon matinee while I was all hopped up on DayQuil. Take all preceding advice with a huge grain of salt.]

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common 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.