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Humana Festival's 'The Roommate' Presents an Odd Couple Updated

Bill Brymer

The traditional “odd couple” narrative is a trope often peppered with masculinist undertones—just take a look at the 2015 television reboot of the Neil Simon play—but in playwright Jen Silverman’s capable hands, it undergoes a smart, feminist update with a true crime twist. “The Roommate” centers around the relationship between Sharon, a recent divorcee in her '50s, and her new roommate, Robyn.
The differences are evident from the start: Sharon is a Midwestern lady whose comfort zone includes her local book club, whereas Robyn is a smart-talking vegan from the Bronx. While this ground may seem ripe for tired humor about their mismatched sensibilities, the plot deftly unfurls, revealing how certain ties can be formed, maintained and broken—regardless of perceived cultural dissonance.

“The Roommate” is the first play to open at the 39th Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre. Directed by Mike Donahue, the play runs through April 12.

In “The Roommate,” we open just as Robyn (Tasha Lawrence) is moving into the Iowa City home she will now be sharing with Sharon (Margaret Daly). The two exchange initial niceties, but Robyn’s hesitance to divulge personal information when Sharon begins questioning has the women off to an awkward though amicable start. Sharon is more free with the details of her life. She recently “retired” from her marriage, which had grown increasingly cold over the years; she has one son—a women’s fashion designer living in Park Slope—who she adamantly asserts is straight.

All Sharon finds out about Robyn is that she used to be a potter and a poet, and that she is gay—to which Sharon replies the cliche, “Oh, I kissed a girl in college,” which brings the conversation to a sputtering stop.

Eventually the two bond over the “medicinal herbs” that Robyn has been growing on Sharon’s side porch,  and some of their lives’ stories begin developing. There are numerous similarities: both have children who don’t call, both want to start over sometimes and neither expected to be sitting across the kitchen table from the other every morning at this stage in their lives. But the differences are still striking, especially to Sharon, who envies Robyn’s seemingly care-free nature. However, she soon finds out that Robyn is on the run from her criminal past, and in an unexpected twist, the two begin a scamming operation.

Though “The Roommate” is built on Silverman’s words and elevated by Lawrence and Daly’s lush, emotionally generous performances—a series of one-sided phone conversations and snippets of music and light complete the production (Andrew Boyce, Paul Toben, Daniel Kluger). Staged exclusively around a kitchen table—which works impeccably for a production in the round—the lighting and sound design are both engaging and unobtrusive enough to seamlessly mark the passing of time and mood, yet be memorable.

While the emphasis on “being bad” is implicit to the production, and stating it twice in the script seemed an unnecessary plot summation, a particularly alluring plotline in that vein was Sharon’s increasing dependence on Robyn to feel alive—first as a catalyst for her illicit behavior, then as an excuse.

Equal parts nuanced and comically exaggerated, “The Roommate” addresses themes of aging, femininity and identity in a fresh, humorous way.

(Photo by Bill Brymer/courtesy of Actors Theatre of Louisville)