Where: Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through Aug. 5
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Two women of “a certain age” trying to reinvent their lives are at the heart of Jen Silverman’s 90-minute “The Roommate,” which premiered at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2015 and is enjoying a well-acted Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre Company thanks to ensemble members Sandra Marquez and Ora Jones, as well as director Phylicia Rashad.
But, and this is a big “but,” the play itself stretches credulity beyond the breaking point. Predecessors like “The Odd Couple, ‘Breaking Bad,” and “Thelma and Louise” feed an improbable plot fueled by facile laugh lines and false aphorisms, such as “everybody wants to burn it down and start over” and “there’s great liberty in being bad.”
The first is uttered, well into the story, by Sharon (Marquez), a straight-laced, talkative 54-year-old former Illinoisan now living in a big old house in Iowa City. Having “retired from her marriage” after her husband did the same, she works at maintaining a telephone relationship with her son, a women’s clothing designer who lives in New York and has a lesbian girlfriend. Sharon also belongs to a weekly book club, volunteers one day a week at a charity gift shop, and doesn’t do much else. To help make ends meet, she’s placed an ad for a roommate for the first time in her life.
As the play opens, Robyn (Jones) is moving in. A Bronx transplant, she’s about the same age as Sharon but the antithesis: a vegan lesbian who smokes and has been many things, among the a slam poet, a potter (of “voodoo” statues), a gardener (of “medicinal herbs” she brings with her in pots) and, we soon learn, a scam artist. Robyn is trying to leave her past behind, and initially, she evades Sharon’s questions about it and about her child, a daughter from whom she’s estranged.
The first few scenes focus on the women establishing a rapport, though arguably there should be more tension between them, especially when Sharon rifles through a box of Robyn’s clothing and finds hundreds of driver’s licenses in different names. Jones’ Robyn has a flash of irritation, but mostly she’s laid-back and amused by the naïve and inexperienced Sharon, who has never smoked marijuana or gone on an internet date.
Predictably, Robyn gets Sharon high. Not at all believably, Sharon wholeheartedly embraces Robyn’s adage that “there’s great liberty in being bad” and the kind of life her new roommate is trying to escape. Bored on an internet date, she picks the pockets of the man while they’re making out in his car. Using a ridiculously phony French accent, she runs a phone con on a friend to collect money for French orphans. She sells weed to members of her reading group and buys an automatic weapon for protection. Soon she’s suggesting to Robyn that they enlist a 12-year-old to start selling pot to grade-school kids.
At the same time, she claims to know the difference between right and wrong, so it is preposterous to think that this sensible Midwestern woman has gone off the deep end simply because she’s dissatisfied with her “empty” life. It’s also disturbing that Silverman seems to be mining most of this for laughs, when it really isn’t very funny. Are we meant to regard this sort of behavior as admirable—or even acceptable—for women of “a certain age,” or anybody for that matter?
The denouement and ending also are troublesome. Not surprisingly, the roommate situation can’t last, but Sharon’s reaction—meant to be poignant and create sympathy, I guess—is pathetic. Only the performances, both of them warm and engaging, redeem the material at all.
Scenic designer John Iocavelli’s Iowa kitchen, enhanced by Xavier Pierce’s lighting, is big enough and packed with enough stuff to impress anyone moving from New York. Samantha C. Jones’ costumes suit the characters, with Robyn favoring flowing caftans and Sharon’s outfits shifting from homey to more sophisticated as she evolves. Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen’s sound design underscores the action nicely, though the script includes too many phone conversations with never-seen characters, an annoying plot device. And not the only one!