Chicago Theater Review: THE ROOMMATE (Steppenwolf)

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by Lawrence Bommer on July 1, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


With some plays what doesn’t happen is the whole megillah. Jen Silverman’s two-character one-act The Roommate, now simmering in a Chicago premiere by Steppenwolf Theatre Company, plays with possibilities. As you watch Silverman’s character comedy turn into serious stuff, it’s easy to invent several dramas (or at least scenarios) percolating. Here, the ending seems both arbitrary and utterly right.

The opposite-attracting core of The Roommate is a very unlikely duo, as much a literary creation as a psychological curiosity (the aphoristic dialogue is often gorgeous). The improbable and peculiar partnership they create is wishful thinking piled onto convincing exposition. We end up for and against these characters, often at the same time.

On designer John Iacovelli’s elaborately appointed kitchen and dining room, part of a sprawling Victorian manse in Iowa City, we meet Sharon (Sandra Marquez), an Iowa dowager and the homeowner/hostess, the more conventional of Silverman’s intriguing twosome. Trekking to Iowa to avoid the excitement of Illinois, this garrulous 54-year-old matron, a book-club aficionado among many interests, has never had a roommate. A genial retiree all but sedated by respectability, Sharon does have a son with a girlfriend who’s lesbian. It’s not enough drama to satisfy her zest for exotic change: Sharon bubbles over with a large and latent fascination for all the lives she’s hasn’t led. With Robyn it comes to a not-so-slow boil.

Robyn (Ora Jones) creates an instant culture clash the second this titular character enters Sharon’s sheltered world. She’s a “fish out of water” interloper, a mysterious stranger whose every difference will shape and stir Sharon to the max. Seeking a second act for a life of “breaking bad,” this African-American émigré — and possible scammer– from the Bronx announces that she’s a pot-smoking vegan. She’s also a potter who makes voodoo-style dolls and, though hating other folks’ poetry, writes her own slam verse. She too has trouble with a child — her recalcitrant daughter. And she is definitely not Sharon.

Inevitably, Robyn and Sharon are challenged to try out each other’s lives. But because early and irreversible choices propelled each woman in different paths, any sisterly solidarity remains an attraction out of reach. Refusing to exploit the supposed mystic powers of female bonding, Silverman’s dialogue doesn’t try to explain or mediate the not so sisterly separation of an odd couple not at all like Neil Simon’s. Instead the playwright makes us imagine the possibilities and price of escaping from and remaking yourself.

Forcing us to really care about the results, the play asks: Will these parts called Sharon and Robyn combine to create a greater whole? Or will one — and not necessarily the one you suspect — corrupt or contradict the other? It’s enough to say that, when Sharon accidentally/on purpose discovers that Robyn carries multiple IDs and a gun, she’s drawn–or taken in — to more differences than she can process.

At this point, less than an hour into the action, The Roommate could take several courses — possibly a 2.1, 3.2 or 4.5 version. To its credit the 90 minutes deliver many crossroads tempting to take. Watching it, it’s hard not to wonder about your own capacity to start over, given the right incentives (and here they’re tauntingly appealing).

Tony-winning director Phylicia Rashad brings myriad subtle touches to the play’s permutations. Marquez’s chirpy Midwestern bonhomie is hilariously contrasted with Jones’s urban wariness, itself a cunning mix of double takes and deadpan. It’s pure joie de vivre meets industrial-strength sang-froid.

By the end we get to — no, we have to — choose between them or, as in real life, just find our own adventure. In either case, “what might have been” haunts this play like a curse.

photos by Michael Brosilow

The Roommate
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted
ends on May 27, 2018
for tickets, call 312.335.1650 or visit Steppenwolf

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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