Associate Connecticut Critic
Sometimes a dish made with wholly familiar ingredients can feel fresh just because of the way they’re put together. Maybe you use higher quality cocoa in your brownies. Or perhaps it’s the addition of a secret ingredient that does the trick. Peanut butter chips or, I don’t know, marijuana. Those exact treats are featured in Long Wharf Theatre’s 2018-2019 season opener “The Roommate” and, like a good pot brownie, the play often feels like a bite of comfort food spiked with a woozy twist.
It begins with a set-up we’ve seen before. Sharon (Linda Powell) is a 50-something woman who spends her days puttering around her spacious house, leaving only occasionally to attend a local “reading group.” Dane Laffrey designed the detailed set, lit with unfussy finesse by Reza Behjat. After a sheltered, cautious life, a long marriage and a quick divorce, most of Sharon’s attention goes to her son, a fashion designer who fled rural Iowa City for Park Slope and now rarely calls. Sharon is warm and maternal, just a touch naïve and more than a little starved for something, anything, to happen in her eerily still life. Enter her new roommate Robyn (Tasha Lawrence). She’s a New Yorker who is moving to Iowa to escape from something. What exactly, we’re not so sure of. She’s a vegan, a lesbian, a smoker. If Sharon is all predictably smooth edges, Robyn is all jittery, hard lines and caustic wit. The two are as different as Felix and Oscar.
Other playwrights might have gone down that line, turning “The Roommate” into a farce or a clash-of-personalities comedy, but Jen Silverman (recently of “The Moors” at Yale Rep and “Collective Rage” off-Broadway) has something deeper and a bit more sinister in mind. During 100 intermissionless minutes, Silverman smartly crafts a play about how two people can shape each other and the way identities shift in different stages of life. It’s a play about the labels others assign us and the ones we lock ourselves into. Early in “The Roommate,” Robyn says that “people find specific words for themselves because it’s easier than not having words, but that doesn’t mean that those words are all accurate all the time.” Sharon isn’t a wife anymore, she’s not a stay-at-home mother or a career woman. As she laments later, reflecting on Robyn’s advice, “I think I don’t have the right words anymore.”
While there are some bittersweet moments, “The Roommate” is most often a well-calibrated comedy. Silverman’s dialogue is witty and naturalistic. These are characters that say “umm” and speak over each other. There are wonderful moments of observational humor and Silverman’s prose is said with a perfectly energetic pace (director Mike Donahue clearly has a rhythmic ear) that doesn’t leave an instant feeling stalled or slow.
The words are also spoken by two tremendously gifted actresses who deliver the kind of performances that are so easy to watch but so difficult to attain. Right from their first entrance, Sharon and Robyn feel like fully fleshed-out individuals. Their tics, their posture, their cadence, everything feels incredibly lived-in. Powell brings a melancholy edge to a familiar archetype while Lawrence, with her husky voice and cagey charm, is also exceedingly likable and charismatic. Their chemistry is palpable, resulting in two characters you wouldn’t mind just watching have coffee for an hour.
That’s largely how the play begins. The two women get to know each other or so it seems. But then Sharon uncovers a secret about her new roommate and the play zooms off into new territory. One, you might say, that would feel somewhat familiar to viewers of a certain Mary Louise Parker show that was a hit about a decade ago. Silverman’s script has a very classical structure – each character has their own and complete metamorphosis – and perhaps that is the play’s biggest problem. During the last thirty minutes, the rougher edges get sanded down to facilitate more plot and to jump-start Sharon and Robyn’s transformations. It’s all a bit too broad and manufactured. It all happens a little too fast and a little too neatly.
But by that time, we are so invested in the characters Powell and Lawrence have so brilliantly inhabited that we don’t care nearly as much. A stronger ending and fewer contrivances could have really made “The Roommate” stick a ten-point landing. But even so, a slightly under-baked brownie is still a treat. A goodie you would recommend to your friends. A confection that fully satisfies.
Jen Silverman’s “The Roommate” runs until November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT. It’s directed by Mike Donahue and stars Linda Powell and Tasha Lawrence. The creative team includes Dane Laffrey (set design), Anita Yavich (costume design), Reza Behjat (lighting design), Stowe Nelson (sound design) and Alex Hajjar (stage manager.)