It was a rainy fall evening when I entered the packed house at Plays & Players for 1812’s The Roommate. The picturesque venue’s classic old-timey feel, oozing love for the theater, energized me after a long day at work, and I was ready to enter the world of two unlikely housemates.
Lance Kniskern’s tremendously well-done set includes a kitchen with two exits, leading to a view of an outdoor patio and hallway to bedrooms. Among cabinets, refrigerator, sink, and stove, the stage’s focal point is a small dining table with two chairs.
New York and Iowa City
The Roommate, written by Jen Silverman, is the story of Sharon and Robyn, two women who meet for the first time as roommates sharing a house in present day Iowa City. Sharon is recently divorced and needs a roommate to help make ends meet, while Robyn is on the run from a dark past in New York. Both are in their mid-50s and both are in need of a fresh start.
The play is packed with both subtle and overt comedy that the whole crowd can bite into. The characters are polar opposites, but have mutual sass. Sharon (Jennifer Childs) is a sheltered, small-town woman who holds antiquated views on what is socially acceptable behavior. Robyn (Grace Gonglewski) is a bold, modern gay woman who has kept up with the changing times. They have misconceived notions of each other and where they come from—with Sharon believing “most New Yorkers are gay,” and Robyn desiring to raise a cow and engage in “restorative manual labor.”
Director Harriet Power sharply choreographs every moment of the play. The characters often engage in playful banter, regularly stemming from Sharon being the type of person who is constantly insulting someone without knowing she’s doing it. Philly favorites Gonglewski and Childs share great chemistry and their charged facial expressions gave life to the well-written jokes.
Sharon discovers that Robyn’s past includes selling weed, stealing cars, and scamming people into donating money to a fake charitable cause. After a brief period of shock, Sharon wants to revive Robyn’s old ways. They begin a partnership in crime and Sharon finds liberty through breaking the law.
The play then veers into soap-opera territory, with plotlines that develop too quickly to be believable, natural progressions for these characters, including a trip to the local Walmart for a gun, and ever-riskier business.
The dialogue is reminiscent of the rapid pace of TV’s Gilmore Girls, but with less heart and skill. The play starts out with great comedic timing and pace, but the character developments begin to seem inauthentic. Personally, as someone who takes big risks in life and doesn’t always play by the rules, this fictional storyline about danger and risk falls short with me. Sharon and Robyn seem like criminal caricatures, rather than realistic portrayals. Maybe the comedic intention demanded a light mood, but I wanted more depth from the characters and craved more prolonged silences to let things sit and settle.
Waking up with strangers
The play offers a relatable depiction of characters who want to transform their lives—and the way a taste of thrill can throw reason out the window. It was refreshing to remember that transformation isn’t limited to more youthful people. Middle-aged folks still have so much to discover about themselves and the world. The Roommate is a revealing comedy about how strangers can wake up a part of you that you didn’t know existed, and how it can be frighteningly easy or devastatingly hard to reroute your life.
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What, When, Where
The Roommate. By Jen Silverman, directed by Harriet Power. Through October 20, 2019, at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Place, Philadelphia. (215) 592-9560 or 1812productions.org.