By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
It was a matter of sheer happenstance I ended up at City Theatre watching the Pittsburgh premiere of The Roommate on International Women’s Day but it turned out to be an appropriate way to mark the occasion.
This is a new comedy by Jen Silverman – in a production directed by Reginald L. Douglas – set in Iowa. Sharon, a divorcee, is just welcoming into her lovely suburban home a new, and first ever, roommate. This stranger, Robyn, hails from the Bronx and it’s the first time she’s ever been to the Midwest.
Though they share similarities; they’re educated, articulate women “of a certain age” beginning their lives again it’s the differences which stand out. Sharon is every inch the repressed, sensible shoe, unsophisticated small town matron while Robyn is something of an aging hippie favoring flowing garments, pot and a sexuality, at least in this part of Iowa, as outré as her taste in music.
Silverman’s intermissionless play shows us the two becoming friends, how each changes the other and the resolution of the relationship.
There’s really no other way to put this – for almost the entire length of its 110 minute playing time The Roommate is a sitcom; Sharon’s the anal retentive one, Robyn’s anal expulsive and oh the merry mix-ups that ensue. It’s The Odd Couple for the new millennium.
It that a bad thing? I’m not sure. Silverman’s a funny writer and the script is, as the best sitcoms are, breezy and funny and winningly light weight; Silverman has little on her mind other than to entertain you – and she does that without breaking a sweat.
And she’s helped in no small part by this equally entertaining City Theatre production. Douglas directs the work with a forceful, but unseen, hand and keeps the play sharp and neat; the mechanics of Silverman’s comedy may seem simple but, of course, putting that comedy across is anything but.
I think it would be impossible (and if not, then illegal) for Tamara Tunie (Sharon) and Laurie Klatscher (Robyn) to be any more charming and endearing than they are here. It’s a particular joy watching two professionals at work utilizing their talent with taste and intelligence. I’d watch these two in anything.
Which, as the evening goes on, increasingly felt like what I was doing. As mentioned above, there’s nothing innately wrong with bubble-headed comedy when it’s done well, but after awhile it did seem odd watching such a slight play at a theater known for more heft.
A bit problematic as well is Sharon; she’s a Midwest caricature. Naïve and unschooled is one thing, but Silverman has written her as unevolved, aggressively mentally torpid and then giggles at her with contempt and condescension: Small Town Hick Learns Life from Big City Chick! It always feels like we’re seeing Sharon through Robyn’s eyes and never the other way around. This coastal elite version of a fly-over frau isn’t doing anybody any favors. No wonder Trump voters hate us liberals.
But it was while I was cogitating on all these issues that Silverman, in the last part of the play, pulls a fast one and introduces a whole new show. Sharon and Robyn undergo radical changes and the style and import of the script jumps the rails and zooms off into a whole new direction.
I then realized, of course, that the fluffy first part was merely the set-up for this “important” last part. It reminded me so much of Stephen Karam’s The Humans, a 2016 play in which a standard dysfunctional family drama is suddenly hijacked by an ending completely at odds in style and substance with what’s come before.
I can’t say I was particularly taken with this “other” Roommate – it feels artificial and highly theatrical, but it does give Tunie and Klatscher the chance to fire off a few more arrows in their quiver … and that’s not a bad thing at all.
The Roommate continues through March 24. City Theatre, South Side. 412/431-CITY. www.citytheatrecompany.org