One’s a naïve, divorced, corn-fed, country bumpkin in safe, secure (“except for the tornados”) Iowa where doors are not locked. The other is a lesbian, vegan grifter from the Bronx, that supposedly crime-ridden borough where even bikes are locked up. That’s the odd couple set-up for Jen Silverman’s culture-clash “The Roommate,” an amusing, well-characterized, skin-deep, two character play in a sterling production at Long Wharf.
Sharon is the Iowa rube: fastidious and open-hearted, she takes in Robyn, the New Yorker who turns out to have had a more exciting (or, at least, dangerous) life. By the play’s end, places will have been exchanged, tables turned, lessons learned. When Sharon secretly dons Robyn’s jacket, she’s transformed into a role she never thought she’d play.
The structure focuses on two 50-something women, their frustrations and desires. Beholden to others – husbands, children – they have been unable to carve out their own possibilities, especially in middle age, much as they try to escape the past. Sharon’s son who may or may not be homosexual, lives in sinful Manhattan, and isn’t as attached to his mother as she assumes he is. (The son’s profession, a dress designer, is a stereotype. Are there no gay construction workers or welders?)
At least he communicates with his mom by phone. Robyn’s daughter, on the other hand, won’t even talk to her mother. Although these are schematic devices, they are insightful because of their underlying awareness that scars will never disappear.
Silverman’s plot pinpoints the see-saw relationship between Sharon and Robyn, opposites needful of the others’ experiences. The playwright shies away from more than hints of sexuality, making one wonder what her real themes and concerns might be.
In the evening’s pivotal scene, where Sharon in a way becomes Robyn, the latter can only marvel at her skill. Because she’s picked up Robyn’s tricks, Sharon goes from thinking being a mother is her “line of work” to being “smarter and faster and younger than I knew I could be. . . . I can’t remember ever having been this happy.”
The evening wouldn’t work if it weren’t for the performances. Without erasing the play’s more comedic aspects, Linda Powell’s Sharon is moving as well as funny. As someone whose id is awakened, when she says, “There’s a great liberty in being bad,” you feel the weight of mediocrity lift. Powell does not tip her hand too early so her transformation is earned and our expectations, while filled, are delayed.
Tasha Lawrence’s Robyn listens as if making corrections in her mind. Tough without being too butch, secretive without being a prevaricator, Lawrence is an excellent foil, even though Robyn’s backstory can be incredible at times.
Mike Donahue’s vigorous direction uses every corner of Dane Laffrey’s handsome set, enriched by props managers Brian C. Fagan and Frank J. Alberino. Anita Yavich’s costumes are witty, Reza Behjat’s lighting is subtle.
“The Roommate,” while not as subtle, is a frolicsome, easy-to-take experience. Don’t look for “meaning,” just enjoy.