A spacious kitchen and dining area with an attached living-room/porch, Dane Laffrey’s set stretches across the Long Wharf thrust space on a diagonal. We see a facsimile of a settled domestic space that looks realistic, though also entirely theatrical. That both-at-once quality is key to Jen Silverman’s The Roommate, a play about making new connections in middle age that uses unexpected turns and a subversive edge to unsettle its theme of the fraught path to friendship. We might feel we’re on comfortable, homey ground, but that might just be a façade.
The show, directed by Mike Donahue — playing at the Long Wharf Theatre until Nov. 4 — is a production that got its first airing at Williamstown Theatre Festival last year, now with two new actresses in this entertaining two-hander.
Sharon (Linda Powell), the homeowner, is a quintessential empty-nester living in Iowa City, Ia. Her grown son has moved to Park Slope and is — inexplicably — not apt to take calls from her on a Friday night. She’s “retired” from her marriage which, she says, her husband retired from first without telling her. Sharon is on her own, her main tie to her community a book club she meets with weekly. As the play goes on, we might find ourselves somewhat incredulous about the sheltered life of this Illinois native, but that doesn’t mean we don’t believe in her. She strives to be an open book, confiding bits of personal information with a bubbly insistence. To others, such as her son and her new roommate, she is nosy, questioning blithely into the void she finds when trying to imagine other people’s lives.
Robyn (Tasha Lawrence, who originated the role) has just moved from the Bronx, and is anything but an open book. The way she meets or frustrates Sharon’s search for companionable knowledge about her new housemate motivates most of the play’s early going. It’s engaging because Silverman has a knack for dialogue that both reveals and conceals. It can be witty but almost as an afterthought. Silverman’s best lines can feel like non sequitur, as she shows an ear for how people intrude individual expressions or stray associations into straightforward conversation. And that’s where we learn something about them, not in the facts they trot out or in the terms with which we might label them.
What the play captures best — and is best when capturing — is what it feels like to be nervous with someone. Sharon is like a schoolgirl again, waiting to whisper secrets at a sleepover, worried about getting things wrong. Robyn has to dredge up a patience she might rather avoid — how to deal tactfully with a host/landlord, an eager and lonely women who fears what she doesn’t know but wants to know anyway. There are goofy moments and sly insinuations, and much lingering mystery and uncomfortable uncertainty.
Who is Robyn, really? Why did she pick up and come to Iowa? We get crumbs. She was a poet, and a potter, and she smokes pot, and has quit, is quitting, smoking cigarettes; she’s vegan, lesbian, and was married to a man. She’s someone who, clearly, has no problem changing her situation and moving on. She comes into Sharon’s life to remind her that the business of living can be messy and, even more revelatory, exciting.
Once things get exciting, we meet a Sharon that surprises even her. She loses none of her bubbly charm, but begins moving in directions quite out of character — or are they? Silverman’s play is at pains to delineate how “the change” that comes in middle age can open doors one had closed, one thought, for good, or had never opened, for some reason. For Sharon, one illicit thrill is enough to set off a domino effect of going further and further out of her comfort zone, and she loves it. And that’s where this Odd Couple mismatch gets interesting. Robyn, who has experience of life beyond the pale, is apt to become more cautious and chiding, unable to share her roommate’s naïve embrace of taking risks.
Both actresses are quite effective in their amorphous roles. Lawrence makes the streetwise aura of Robyn feel authentic in the way she moves with a cautious tread in this domestic space and then, once one cat is out of the bag, sits on a table top with the air of a ringleader setting out a plan. Powell’s Sharon is a lot of fun, in a not-afraid-to-look-silly way. She tries on Robyn’s jacket and cap and strikes poet’s poses. And the way the two cavort to some cranking Patti Smith tunes is loose and goosey, and Smith offers a good example of a middle-aged mother not at all retiring and matronly.
A device that seems a bit forced is the way phone calls to and from never-seen children impinge on the action. Both women are mothers and that fact says something about them, but the affect of that role doesn’t register as much more than Sharon’s generic, motherly concern, or Robyn’s grudging grasp of how children reject their parents. We see that both women have to find a way to get beyond that attenuated role, and the play wisely shows that nothing else is likely to fill that empty space.
The situation, in its oddball humor, keeps us off-guard in the setup. But once we’ve settled into the surprising change in Sharon’s outlook, seeing how she adapts to her roommate’s former world, there’s not as much to entertain us or for us to entertain. We hit a plateau that only flirts with a Thelma and Louise — or maybe Patty Hearst? — sense of how to challenge the status quo.
Between the two women, there is also the possibility of a more emotional transgression, into love or betrayal, and the play navigates that aspect of the relationship well, finding a way out of it that doesn’t compromise either woman’s dearly held autonomy. Silverman manages to let each keep her dignity while offering a worthwhile life lesson to both characters and to the audience.
Likable and with a refreshing sensibility, The Roommate reminds us that discovery means accepting rather than dismissing what we don’t already know.
The Roommate runs at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Dr., through Nov. 4. Visit the theater’s website for tickets and more information.