Theater Review: “The Roommate” — Iowan Yin Yang

The moral of Jen Silverman’s yarn is straightforward enough: we are in a country where self-transformation has become an end in itself, re-invention a default response to omnipresent banality.

The Roommate by Jen Silverman. Directed by Spiro Veloudos. Staged by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, Copley Square, Boston, MA, through November 18.

Adrianne Krstansky (r) & Paula Plum (l) in the Lyric Stage Company production of “The Roommate.” Photo: Mark S. Howard.

By Bill Marx

A number of cons are being run in The Roommate, one of the most effective played on the audience. Given The Odd Couple premise of dramatist Jen Silverman’s pleasantly sour comedy, theatergoers no doubt expect a sentimental rapprochement between the script’s  cohabiting contrary personalities. That the playwright doesn’t go in this direction is refreshing, though I wish she had done more with the premise’s devilish possibilities. Here is yet another stage variation on Herman Melville’s confidence man (sans the surreal gusto, alas, of the late Sam Shepard), the fluidity of identity diluting the grand old certitudes. The moral of the yarn is straightforward enough: we are in a country where self-transformation has become an end in itself, re-invention a default response to omnipresent banality. American flimflammers don’t just rip us off  — they  infect us with the ’empowering’ disease of the con job.

In this case, it is flimflamming women. Middle-aged lesbian slam poet Robyn flees the Bronx and moves into the Iowa home of middle-aged emptynester Sharon, who lives a  staid life, happily divorced from her husband and lightly estranged from her son, who designs women’s dresses and lives in New York. Robyn is not who she says she is; she changes her stories about her past (she gave up pottery as a profession?) as well as her reasons for moving to Iowa. Instead of being suspicious of this elusiveness (as well as her roomie’s appetite for growing pot), Sharon becomes increasingly intrigued and then fascinated with the enigmatic drifter. That triggers the expected switch — with no meaningful life of her own, Sharon becomes obsessed with Robyn (at one point even trying on her leather jacket while aping her mannerisms). Robyn is no bleeding heart and wants to maintain a safe distance from an awkward relationship that could spin out of control. But Sharon is determined to come closer and closer, to the point of taking up some of Robyn’s illicit means for generating.

In the hands of Shepard or Harold Pinter this situation might have evolved into a pitched battle for control. Who in this set-up is submissive? When does the dominator become the dominated? But Silverman opts for a lax approach, going for genial laughs instead of domestic tension, often generating giggles via the sight of a corn-fed heartlander mischievously stepping out of line. The dramatist is not particularly interested in exploring turmoil, psychological or otherwise, between the two. A gun is introduced and then taken back to Walmart! Sharon, with the help of Robyn, begins dating again, but with ironic rather than psycho-sexual results. The not-all-that-dramatic idea is for us (and a puzzled Robyn, who isn’t really sure what to make of the monster she has created) to watch Sharon’s change from Jekyll to Hyde, a process that the latter keeps reassuring us (much too often) is all so “exciting.” The Roommate cautiously parcels out its intimations of darkness, reserving its creepiest kick until the end.

Still, Silverman’s refusal to go soft is admirable: she wants to get at how the urge for change — when it bypasses hard work for the thrills of instant gratification — goes awry. And the figures of Sharon and Robyn, in the hands of such talented actresses as Paula Plum and Adrianne Krstansky, are quirky enough to be amusingly criminal, if not all that memorable. Plum has much more to work with, given the character’s delighted escape from the conventional. Sharon’s nervous energy, signaled by Plum’s fluttering laugh, suggests that there’s something unsettled in the character As for Krstansky’s Robyn, her jaded outsider is not a schemer (alas); she comes off as more of a tired businesswoman on vacation. She’s searching for respite from an exhausting life of wheeling-and-dealing. Given the placidity of the proceedings, Spiro Veloudos’s direction is appropriately low-key and nuanced — at one point the removal of a potted plant from a kitchen window signals a change, a dangerous opening of perspective. A nice theatrical effect: move one innocuous thing and the neat picture crumbles.

So yes, The Roommate refrains from giving us a standard treatment of yin-yang roomies. But neither does the script go very deeply in its exploration of crime’s appeal for women. (Economic pressures are ignored, a besetting sin in most American comedies. The apparent assumption is that money isn’t a problem for the audience, so why should it be for the characters.) And that is a shame because Silverman is onto something here, an intimation of susceptibility that has more than a little relevance to the opioid epidemic.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

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