Theater: Two-hander

Women of ‘The Roommate’ overcome challenges in script

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‘The Roommate,’ currently in its Bay Area premiere run at the San Francisco Playhouse, is the story of two women in their 50s living together. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Playhouse.

By Charles Brousse

Strictly from a performance standpoint, a two-character play may be one of the most difficult forms of live theater to pull off successfully. Solo performers rely only on their own talent—either they’re up to the task, or they aren’t. Multi-character plays are a team effort, in which weakness in one place can be balanced by strength in another. But “two-handers” (as they’re called by people in the industry) depend on actors having exactly the right balance, especially when the script has some kinks in it that need to be overcome.

That’s the situation facing Susi Damilano and Julia Brothers in Jen Silverman’s The Roommate, which is currently in its Bay Area premiere run (through July 1) at the San Francisco Playhouse. Luckily for director Becca Wolff and the Playhouse, this is a match made in … well, I’ll leave the place up to you, but it isn’t anywhere warmed by fire and brimstone. Watching them, I can’t imagine a more effective casting; their brilliant response to the challenges that Silverman’s script poses almost (and I emphasize that word) makes one forget that there are problems waiting to be solved.

Damilano is “Sharon,” a fluttery, thoroughly conventional 54-year-old divorcee living in Iowa City. She suffers from “empty nest” syndrome brought on by a failed marriage and the refusal of her grown son, now living in Brooklyn, New York, to allow her to interfere in his life. (Although the play doesn’t specify it, Silverman has her sounding like a stereotypical Jewish mother.) Deciding that keeping a neat house and staying alert by attending regular meetings of a book club isn’t enough, she advertises for a boarder with the hope that having another person to talk to will make her loneliness easier to bear. Thus begins a chain of events that will have important consequences for both her and the new arrival.

Brothers’ character, “Robyn,” is the exact opposite. She’s a refugee from the Bronx: Tall, lanky, and given to ironic observations, she is, in dress and demeanor, the very image of post-hippie cool. When Sharon presses her about her background, she provides cryptic responses. Her reason for moving to the Midwest? To escape the stress she felt in New York and get a fresh start.

Instead of rejecting her, as might be expected, Sharon welcomes Robyn as a roommate and the fun begins. Act I feels like a knockoff of The Odd Couple formula.   

Robyn’s a vegetarian, which Sharon doesn’t understand. She’s a smoker, which Sharon won’t accept. Sharon worries that her son may be dating a lesbian, which Robyn thinks is just fine. Sharon also worries that he doesn’t love her anymore, which Robyn replies is par for the course. “Children,” she says, “don’t have to like us. They only have to survive long enough to be like us.”

It’s mostly lighthearted banter that elicits plenty of laughs, but underneath there’s a gathering tension as Robyn reveals more and more about herself and her past life. She’s gay. She makes “voodoo dolls” that she carries around in a suitcase. She loves Patti Smith. In New York, she was a con artist who telephoned old people and talked them into sending her their savings. She likes to grow and sell pot. She did (in her words) “a little bit of auto theft” when she was particularly hard up.

I’d say it’s not the best resume for a roommate, but instead of alarm, Act II finds Sharon engaging in a complete exchange of roles. Out with The Odd Couple and in with Breaking Bad. Defying Robyn’s attempts to restrain her newly awakened enthusiasm, this formerly straight-laced divorced housewife seeks to emulate and even outdo her boarder’s petty crimes, drug use and sexual libertinage—all (she claims) in the interest of achieving a transformative “liberation.” If that sounds pretty unconvincing, there is a surprise ending in which the author partially redeems herself and these two very fine actors work hard to keep the boat afloat. Long after the play is forgotten, we’ll remember their performances.

NOW PLAYING: The Roommate runs through July 1 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, 2nd floor, San Francisco; 415/677-9596; sfplayhouse.org.

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