Linda Powell and Tasha Lawrence in The Roommate at Long Wharf Theatre

Home Economics

Americans love roommates. Think Oscar and Felix, Laverne and Shirley, Joey and Chandler. Playwright Jen Silverman offers her own take on this classic relationship, titled simply The Roommate, at Long Wharf Theatre through November 4.

The play begins with an age-old premise: a stranger comes to town. That stranger is Robyn (Tasha Lawrence), and she’s carrying a moving box through the side porch door of the Iowa City house belonging to Sharon (Linda Powell). Robyn is from New York—not Upstate, but the Bronx, as Sharon is somewhat alarmed to learn. Newly divorced, Sharon has apparently decided she needs to take on a roommate in order to help pay the bills. She doesn’t have a job—she tells Robyn she’s “retired” from her marriage—and she identifies herself as a mother. Sadly, her grown son—himself now a New Yorker—seems too busy for her. She rarely leaves the house. Robyn, too, offers a cagey answer to the question of employment: She’s alternatively a former potter, a poet and someone who likes to grow things. “I thought maybe I’d raise bees,” she says.

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Despite their awkward beginning, something that might be called friendship—Robyn and Sharon debate the use of this word—develops. The first half of The Roommate is devoted to exploring who these women are and how much of themselves they’re willing to reveal as they learn to share their private spaces. Iowan Sharon is so naive—unfortunately, the play relies in part on stereotypes about Midwesterners—that she doesn’t recognize Robyn’s robust marijuana plants and is taken aback by Robyn’s proclamation that she’s gay. Robyn responds to Sharon’s limited social experience (a weekly “reading group” and trips to the supermarket) with amused, world-weary quips. She plays her cards closer to the chest than Sharon does, but that doesn’t limit our understanding.

Or our suspicions. “There’s a great liberty in being bad,” Robyn tells Sharon breezily at the end of Scene Two. Robyn has been bad, and she’s not free at all, and she’s self-aware enough to know this. But Sharon hears the statement literally.

Sharon’s discovery that Robyn isn’t exactly who she thought she was comes quite late, nearly halfway through the play. But it’s the catalyst for the play’s most fascinating scene, a finely choreographed pas de deux in which the boundaries around each woman begin to expand and contract. It sets in motion a transformation that walks right up to the line of credibility. Only the ending of The Roommate, which Silverman reports she rewrote at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2017, steps over the line of what, for me, seemed plausible within the world she’s created. And yet, who hasn’t seen the implausible happen?

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It’s a feat for just two actors to sustain an hour and forty minutes on stage, but both Lawrence and Powell deliver compelling performances. Mike Donahue’s direction is attentive to the physical distance between Robyn and Sharon as their boundaries shift, and he utilizes all of Dane Laffrey’s detailed set. The movement from one scene to the next is smooth, with the exception of one instance when the stage crew unexpectedly intrudes to reset props.

Playwright Silverman’s script is generally clever and well-constructed. The theme of saying yes and saying no is developed and repeated. Up to now, Sharon has lived a life of “no” and Robyn a life of “yes,” but we see their stances shifting tectonically before our eyes. “I was born as a malleable, changeable template,” Robyn tells Sharon—a line that perhaps defines this roommate story more than any other.

In an interview printed in the program, Silverman calls The Roommate “a play that masquerade as American realism” but ultimately “subvert that particular set of conventions.” But I found the play on the whole to be pretty conventional, which isn’t meant as a slight. Innovation can be exciting, and Silverman has a reputation for doing it, but there’s also satisfaction in more straightforward storytelling. For its part, The Roommate develops two interesting characters, makes us laugh and gives us something to talk about on the way home, where our own roommates may await.

The Roommate
Long Wharf Theatre – 222 Sargent Dr, New Haven (map)
Now playing through November 4
(203) 787-4282

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by T. Charles Erickson for Long Wharf Theatre.

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