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The Roommate
South Coast Repertory
Review by Bill Eadie

Linda Gehringer and Tessa Auberjonois
Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR
Playwright Jen Silverman noticed that there aren't a lot of plays featuring roles for women that are somewhat older than "young" and that, even when those plays are written, the older women characters aren't all that interesting.

So, she wrote one. For two women. Just two. She called it The Roommate. And they start out being more on the conventional side than not. But, then, there's this wide curve in the road ...

Sharon lives in Iowa City. She's retired—from marriage, that is. She says that her ex-husband retired from it before she did. In any case, he's not there anymore, and she lives in a too-big house in Iowa City. Sharon doesn't seem to be hurting for money, but she finds that she doesn't get out that much and her friendships are limited. So, she advertises for a roommate.

As the play begins, Robyn, the roommate, is just moving in. Robyn is from New York—the Bronx, to be exact. Sharon is pretty sure that the Bronx is a scary place, but Robyn assures her that it is only in some areas. Sharon volunteers that she has a son who lives in Brooklyn—Park Slope to be exact. He is quite handsome, designs women's fashions, has a lot of gay friends, but isn't gay himself. On the other hand, the only girlfriend Sharon has heard about is a lesbian. Robyn tells Sharon that she's a lesbian but that she's not interested in Sharon, sexually. Sharon takes in that declaration with a degree of awe.

And all that comes before the curve.

Robyn turns out to be somewhat secretive. When Sharon presses on the details of Robyn's life, Robyn changes the subject. Still, Robyn seems somewhat taken with Sharon's attention. It's clear that Sharon sees Robyn as urban, if not urbane, and hip, someone who will help Sharon break out of the mold she's in. And, just when it's looking as though we're headed for a play about two women who aren't a lot alike but who will end up learning from each other, the curve appears.

The curve takes the play off in a plausible, given Robyn's reluctance to talk about her life, but still unexpected direction. To say any more wouldn't be fair. Let's just say that we do learn more about Robyn and that Sharon is changed significantly by having Robyn in her life. Robyn is changed, as well.

The curve turns out to fulfill the expectations established by the first half-hour of the 100-minute, no intermission, run time. But the new direction seems to send the story far enough afield as to become annoying. And there's not enough payoff to compensate for becoming impatient—until you've thought for a while. Even after thinking, you may still believe that your patience wasn't adequately rewarded.

Despite the real possibility of audiences hating the play, director Martin Benson does his best to present it in a way that can be appreciated. He has cast two South Coast Rep veterans, Linda Gehringer (Sharon) and Tessa Auberjonois (Robyn), put them on a pitch-perfect set (designed by John Iacovelli) with as beautiful a lighting design (by Brian Gale) as can be imagined. Mr. Benson has shaped the play skillfully, and the two actors perform it in nuanced fashion.

The more I thought about what I saw, the more I came to understand and appreciate the choices being made, both in the plot development and in the acting. Didn't help in the end, though. I still couldn't get past disliking where the curve went.

South Coast Repertory's production of Jen Silverman's The Roommate performs daily except Mondays through January 22, 2017. There are some variations in the schedule, so check for a calendar. Tickets are available either online or by phoning (714) 708-5555. The theatre is located in the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, at 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197.

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