Theater Review: At WTF — “The Roommate” and “The Model American”

Seeing The Model American on WTF’s smaller Nikos Stage a few hours after The Roommate was a powerful reminder of how deep theatrical pockets can be used to develop deeply significant new work.

The Roommate by Jen Silverman. Directed by Mike Donahue. Staged by Williamstown Theatre Festival in its Main Stage, Williamstown, MA, through July 16.

The Model American by Jason Kim. Directed by Danny Sharron. Staged by Williamstown Theatre Festival in its Nikos Stage, Williamstown, MA, through July 9.

S. Epatha Merkerson, left, and Jane Kaczmarek in "The Roommate" at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Photo: Daniel Rader.

S. Epatha Merkerson, left, and Jane Kaczmarek in “The Roommate” at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Photo: Daniel Rader.

By Helen Epstein

What if the attractive photographer who drops in on the lonely housewife in The Bridges of Madison County was, instead of Clint Eastwood (in the movie version of the best-selling novel), a strung-out lesbian from the Bronx? That’s the set-up of The Roommate, an often entertaining two-hander set in Iowa City, Iowa where two very different middle-aged women have contracted to be roommates.

Sharon (Golden Globe and Emmy Award winner S. Epatha Merkerson) is the epitome of “Midwestern nice.” She is a middle-class African-American from Illinois who has been living in Iowa –- most of the time, it seems, hanging out in her bright, well-appointed kitchen. Neatly-coiffed and full of euphemisms, Sharon wears a purple knit pants outfit with sensible sandals; the soundtrack for her life is wind chimes. She is “involuntarily retired from her marriage,” and now spends her time phoning her “designer” son, volunteering, and tidying her comfortable but empty nest.

Robyn (Jane Kaczmarek of the popular TV sit-com Malcolm in the Middle) bursts onto Sharon’s covered porch like a crazed bat. She has driven to Iowa from the Bronx, is Northeastern edgy and a huckster. Neither euphemistic nor tidy, Robyn comes as a blunt working-class Caucasian, with long, messy platinum hair, a black-leather jacket, and boots.

The contrasts in these two women’s styles, gestures, and movements makes for a long-running visual joke that raises expectations of quirky cultural/political conflicts, but their shallow, Odd Couple sit-com dialogue disappoints.

Robyn is spooked. Sharon doesn’t lock her doors, she regards tornados and cornfields as ordinary facts of life, and that there is so much space inside the house and out. Sharon is spooked. She is 54 years old, this is her first roommate, and she thinks criminals run riot in the Bronx. She wonders just what kind of woman she has allowed into her home.

In an attempt to make small talk, Sharon tells Robyn that everyone thinks her son in New York “is homosexual but he’s not.”

“I’m gay,” Robyn informs her.

“I kissed a girl once in college,” is Sharon’s reply.

The Roommate debuted at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville in 2015, the year Netflix’s Grace and Frankie (starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin) launched a hit TV series about a similarly disparate match-up. But Grace and Frankie featured the female characters ex-husbands. Playwright Jen Silverman has written a rare play that gives two mature actresses the opportunity to shine on their own.

Thankfully, the script gets better as the plot thickens and the action begins. Despite their differences, both solo Moms are at a loss when it comes to dealing with their adult children. Sharon’s son has embraced a life she is trying to deny. Robyn’s daughter, once her partner in crime, is now working in a law office. As Robyn moves in her packed boxes, Sharon discovers more about her and is inspired to cook up extra-culinary surprises in her kitchen. We grasp she has been waiting all her life for someone — like Robyn —  to come along and jump-start her existence.

Playing against the type, Jane Kaczmarek brings a gruff, haunted, close to manic quality to the figure of Robyn the grifter. S. Epatha Merkerson gives a more subtle, nuanced performance as Sharon, who is increasingly animated by her interaction with her roommate and is transformed in sometimes hilarious ways.

Director Mike Donohue has made the most of Williamstown’s luxurious resources. Dane Laffrey’s set is so meticulously designed and outfitted that you are convinced it is a working kitchen. Williamstown’s Main Stage is extraordinarily large for a two-character piece, but the director uses the space adroitly. The costumes and props — from Sharon’s many appliances to Robyn’s sculptures, pots of marijuana plants, and a machine gun — are well served by Scott Zielinski’s innovative lighting and Stowe Nelson’s sound design. Sharon’s’s world and Robyn’s whirlwind, transformative visit are splendidly evoked.

Despite its clichés, I enjoyed The Roommate. Capable entertainment should not be undervalued or taken for granted these days.

(L to R): Hiram Delgado (Gabriel), Han Jonghoon (Jae Won) in the WTF production of "The Model American." Photo: Daniel Rader.

(L to R): Hiram Delgado (Gabriel) and Han Jonghoon (Jae Won) in the WTF production of “The Model American.” Photo: Daniel Rader.

Seeing The Model American on the smaller Nikos Stage a few hours after The Roommate was a powerful reminder of how deep theatrical pockets can be used to develop brilliant and deeply significant work.

As playwright Jason Kim and director Danny Sharron describe the creative process in an interview, The Model American was developed over two summers in Williamstown. Kim is Korean-American; Sharron is Israeli-American — and both actively identify as gay immigrants.

As is often the case in the compact Nikos Theater, the play opens on a minimalist set that, with its elongated circular light fixture and long benches, suggests an official government hall or perhaps an updated version of Ellis Island.

Wilson Chin’s effectively quasi-abstract set puts a considerable burden on the script and performers — I’m happy to report that both are stellar.

Jae Won (performed by a smiling, beguiling Han Jonghoon) opens the play. He bows, takes off his shoes, and delivers a monologue entirely in Korean, yet the speech manages to neatly introduce the show’s essential themes. We are able to catch two key words — “Cadillac” and “American Dream.” These two elements are key to the ambitions and preoccupations of the other characters – native as well as non. We are about to examine aspects of the American Dream through the eyes of a chorus-line-like group of people, immigrant and non-immigrant, male and female, black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight.

However, the protagonist of this well-crafted and superbly-cast six-character drama is Gabriel. He is a Latin American immigrant who fudged his c.v. and managed to talk his way into a job as an assistant to the executive of an international start-up company. As played by Hiram Delgado, a blazingly charismatic grad of the University of Puerto Rico (who is still at NYU’s Tisch School), Gabriel’s rise from illegal alien living in a shelter to citizen entrepreneur with a condo is the major trajectory in this intricately structured play.

Among the other journeys: the descent of Emmett, the grave, tightly-wound Harvard MBA (an impressive nuanced Maurice Jones) who is moved to give Gabriel the break he needs out of a sense of solidarity. Emmett, an African-American from Texas, becomes a casualty not only of Gabriel’s ambitions, but to the machinations of his white investor/boss Tina (effectively played by Laila Robins). While Emmett becomes addicted to cocaine, his younger sister Cora finds religion and recovery (a moving performance by Sheria Irving). Micah Stock offers comic relief as the wooden Jude, Gabriel’s rich boyfriend from Greenwich, CT.

It is rare to see such a polished production of new drama, particularly one that takes the audience so fully into the hearts and minds of its characters. Director Sharron has cast the play with consummate skill and he artfully brings out its multiple themes and sub-themes. There is not a false note hit in a work of cultural diagnosis that is filled with impressive moments of discovery and recognition. The cast is consistently satisfying and often extraordinary, especially Delgado as Gabriel and Jonghoon as Jae Won.

Let’s hope other theaters recognize the value of this perceptive script — it deserves plenty of exposure.

Helen Epstein is the author, co-author, editor or translator of ten books of non-fiction. She e-publishes classics of non-fiction with Patrick Mehr here

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts