Review: South Coast Repertory's Quirky New Play "THE ROOMMATE" Shakes Things Up
Michael L. Quintos
OnStage Associate Los Angeles Critic
Pleasantly quirky and surprisingly unexpected, playwright Jen Silverman explores a delightfully fresh and edgy new take on the formulaic "opposite personalities that live together" paradigm in the new dark comedy “THE ROOMMATE,” now continuing its West Coast premiere performances at Orange County's Tony Award-winning regional theater South Coast Repertory through January 22 in Costa Mesa, CA.
The consistently winsome and, at times, touchingly relatable two-character play revels in its rewardingly progressive peeling of its characters' deeply squelched personalities. In the span of 100 minutes, the play unveils two very complex, rather dysfunctional individuals you still ultimately want to root for and watch blossom into better people as we watch them long to transform their lives.
In its own way, the play is essentially both a coming-of-age buddy comedy—except the characters are of, well, advanced age—and a mentor/mentee buddy comedy—except the vocation being passed down is, uh, a little out of the ordinary and vividly unexpected for a pair of Golden Girls.
When we first meet them, the characters—both in their mature 50's—find themselves at a mid-life impasse, each highly motivated by a desperate need to change things up in their in-flux lives.
On one side is anxious, socially awkward empty-nester Sharon (endearingly played by SCR regular Linda Gehringer), a conservative 54-year-old single white female living alone in her house in Iowa, yearning to burst out of her own cautious, protective skin. Her time-trapped home is an aging, pristine monument to a life that once included a husband and a son, who both have long since left her behind (her long distance phone calls/messages to her son pierces the heart in its aching pleas for connection).
Almost instantly, her nervous energy, rapid-fire talking, and curious demeanor hints at a woman that has obviously endured years of palpable loneliness, but is now getting a much-needed jolt of excitement introduced into her previously solitary world.
That jolt, it turns out, is a silver-haired woman named Robyn (excellently played by another SCR regular Tessa Auberjonois), Sharon's new 54-year-old vegan roommate who has just arrived from the Bronx—a New York City borough that Sharon immediately assumes is a crime-infested, danger-filled ghetto. Though Sharon doesn't know the circumstances of Robyn's drastic change of address to her much more sleepy town (at least initially), she remains open to the idea of taking in the mysterious renter—at the very least to help with mounting expenses and to have another human being—an interesting, more cosmopolitan one at that—to talk with in her own house again.
For city-bred Robyn, Iowa is certainly a culture shock of sorts, where Sharon is its nosy representative. And underneath her guarded facade, as one can easily assume, the quieter, very chill Robyn is indeed keeping many secrets buried deep. Much like Sharon, Robyn’s face and body language hints at pain and cautiousness, too. Is Iowa a necessary escape from her old life? What is she running away from and what exactly is she hiding?
Despite their similar ages, the two women could not be any more different. Sharon—making due with what life hander her—keeps a clean home (in Iowa, where they "specialize in corn and space") and only occasionally ventures outside to meet up with ladies in her book club. She has basically resigned to her age group’s perceived limitations and her Iowa lifestyle.
Robyn, on the other hand, dresses like an ageless hipster who also grows her own organic vegetables, drinks Almond milk, dabbles in pottery and slam poetry, and—SPOILER ALERT—is a lesbian. Her coming out—meant to be nonchalant yet still comes off perplexing to Sharon—is prompted by Sharon revealing that her son (voiced by Calvin Picou) is actually in New York City working as a talented and, uh, indisputably heterosexual fashion designer.
Their differences, though, are the very reasons why they form an easy kinship. Along the way, they also find common ground. Understandably, Sharon sees Robyn as a fascinating woman worth emulating.
So, naturally, Sharon digs and digs, while Robyn—as she grows more comfortable with her roommate—throws her a few bits of information. For her part, Robyn urges Sharon to stop looking at herself in a negative light:
"Stop mummifying yourself!" Yells Robyn to Sharon.
Little by little, Sharon's self esteem is on an uptick while Robyn, curiously, seems ever more conflicted despite displaying a bemused willingness to "educate” her landlord. Soon Sharon is introduced to a few of Robyn's, uh, vices, which provide much of the comic relief throughout the play, as Sharon takes to her discoveries and lessons with a child-like enthusiasm. Naturally, the roommates become close friends and… unexpected business partners.
Evenly and earnestly paced by director Martin Benson, THE ROOMMATE is a refreshingly unique dramatization of an older female friendship that I don't think I've seen before. Silverman—a young playwright who somehow can write authentic voices of women more than twice her age—has successfully penned a very natural yet still outrageous play that gets more and more compelling as it progresses.
The joy of watching the play is seeing the interaction of these impressive actors essaying these engaging characters who don't feel like familiar stock characters. Particularly charming is Gehringer's smile-inducing (and, at times, tear-inducing) portrait of Sharon, a woman who for years was stuck in a rut, but then is believably yanked from her bubble—enabling her to love the woman she's discovering in herself. And, boy, does she ever take to her new found discoveries!
On the flip side, watching Auberjonois' Robyn try her darnedest not to be an accidental mentor keeps the play grounded in a stark reality. It becomes clear that her past keeps invading her present no matter how hard she tries to keep it at bay. But she's also experiencing something she didn't count on: the heartwarming feeling of being able to coax joy and a sense of freedom from someone who desperately needed it.
Yep. Sharon really needed it. And Robyn is happy to provide.
"There's great liberty in being bad," declares Robyn to Sharon.
The beautiful interplay between Gehringer and Auberjonois (who, I assume, is aged to look 54 via makeup to play Robyn) is certainly a testament to their genuine chemistry and, of course, their serious acting chops. To watch their characters come to life is a treat.
Visually, the play utilizes a believably modest Iowan abode set designed by John Iacovelli that remains the authentic canvas for these wonderful actors for the entirety of the intermission-less play. Brian Gale's lighting bounces effectively with the space, while Angela Balogh Calin's costumes aid in providing character context in their sartorial subtleties. As a continuing work-in-progress, any further changes Silverman applies to THE ROOMMATE at this point (which was birthed at the Actors Theatre of Louisville) would be considered further fine-tuning to an already appealing play.
If The Golden Girls taught us anything, it is that life doesn't stop becoming interesting once you hit a certain age. Sure, there are few more aches and irritations here and there, but that doesn't mean a downturn is on the horizon. There's a fair amount of uneasiness involved with aging, sure, but perhaps nothing is as heartbreaking as the frightening prospect of growing old and feeling lonely and settled into a rut. As you will see in THE ROOMMATE, though it may take another person to help nudge you out of a downward spiral, ultimately, joy and confidence are gained by you and you alone.
It would certainly be unwise to dismiss the play as little more than just a female retread of The Odd Couple or Breaking Bad (oops, did that reveal too much?) or a more mature-aged Thelma and Louise. Arguably, THE ROOMMATE is much, much more than that.
The play, as its tagline postulates, definitively proves that, yes, "it's never too late to shake things up."
* Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ *
Photos by Debora Robinson for South Coast Repertory.
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Jen Silverman's THE ROOMMATE continues its final performances at South Coast Repertory through January 22, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.