The Roommate, Jen Silverman’s 2015 comedy, premiered at the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival, and has made the rounds of America’s professional regional companies since, including the Williamstown Theatre Festival and the Baltimore Everyman Theatre. Now, it has arrived at the San Francisco Playhouse, the Bay Area’s top theatre company. While it’s doubtful that the play will ever win any major awards, it’s frequently very funny and is a showcase for two actresses of a high calibre to do what they do best: act up a storm.
The driving action of The Roommate wins no points for originality: kindly but uptight mid-50s Sharon has just divorced from her now ex-husband and, to help with the bills, takes on a new roommate in her large Iowan suburban house. That roommate is Robyn, a slam-poet-vegan-lesbian from the Bronx who teaches Sharon how to “start living again”, but *gasp*, Robyn might have a “deep, dark secret” that she is hiding from Sharon! As I said, no points for originality. However, Silverman takes this classic setup and, if she never inverts it fully, approaches it with a fresh authorial voice that, while constantly making fun of both characters, never reduces either one to caricature. The comedy, which is of the style of a network sitcom, also manages to hit the bullseye with every punchline, to the point where I was thinking for a while that Silverman would do well to adapt this play to a television series.
However, the play takes a dark turn at around the halfway point in which the laughs grow farther and farther apart and the characters have to make more and more serious decisions. Yes, it comes at the point in which the secret is revealed, and yes, it is still very predictable. But the emotional consequences ring true to life, and if they never succeed in moving the audience, the play has something of note to say about patterns of addiction and how and when to stop when the world does not tell you. It’s not profound, but it will leave you with something to think about, at least for the walk back to the car. The play would have been better if it had just stuck to comedy (and, at 105 minutes, is about ten minutes too long), especially when the comedy was so good, but the author’s own vision for her play was by no means a failure to finish what she started.
The Roommate may be slight, but the production at the San Francisco Playhouse is anything but. Julia Brothers is an actress that had always been on my radar, but I’d never been able to see her in anything until now, and she does not disappoint. Her Robyn is tough but not hard and always very likable, a key factor in making the audience believe that Sharon could be so enamored with her, and if you never stop being aware that she is acting, it’s still very good acting that you’re aware of. Susi Damilano is on a serious hot streak right now, coming off of directing the fabulous She Loves Me and the even more fabulous Noises Off at the San Francisco Playhouse this season, and here she is back on the stage as Sharon. Hearing that she’s also the producing director of the Playhouse, one might think that there is an element of nepotism going on here, but anyone who’s seen her onstage before knows she’s a seriously talented actress, and she’s better than ever in The Roommate, where she successfully nails the subtle comic timing of the character’s actions (no doubt a technique she learned after working on Noises Off, a play that lives and dies by its timing), and finding an intelligence beneath the surface of Sharon. It would be far too easy to reduce Sharon to the air-headed suburban mother who we love to laugh at as she is shocked by the existence of marijuana and terrified by the idea of living in the Bronx, but Damilano makes sure that the audience always knows that the play’s two characters are more than equally matched on all fronts except worldly experience.
Director Becca Wolf’s staging is focused and clear and she creates a context for the two cast members to truly feel like good friends, the kind of chemistry that playwrights dream about when writing two character plays. On a side note, I’d like to commend the Playhouse for its promotion of female directors. Their 2016-2017 season features five shows directed by women and three directed by men and their 2017-2018 season features four shows directed by women and two by men. At a time when it is often still seen as a novelty to have a woman direct a show or a film, the Playhouse’s commitment to gender balance is both commendable and shows that the current heavy skew of male directors in theatre today is unnecessary, especially when these women are doing work that is just as good if not better than their male counterparts. Nina Ball’s set design is just right, its construction the perfect balance between realism and impressionism.
The Roommate is an excellent diversion, if never an excellent play. I would stop short of telling all Bay Area citizens to run to go see it, but those living in San Francisco with a free evening should absolutely want to consider seeing this decidedly entertaining and enjoyable evening of theatre.
The Roommate plays at the San Francisco Playhouse in Union Square through July 1st. Tickets and information available here.