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Linda Gehringer and Tessa Auberjonois in The Roommate at South Coast Repertory (Photo by Debora Robinson)
Linda Gehringer and Tessa Auberjonois in The Roommate at South Coast Repertory (Photo by Debora Robinson)

The Roommate

Reviewed by Deborah Klugman
South Coast Repertory
Through January 22

A worldly 50-something lesbian from the Bronx moves in with a naïve 50-something woman in Iowa and changes her roommate’s life. That’s the gist of Jen Silverman’s stilted one-act, whose main appeal is its focus on the lives of older women, usually given short shrift in American film and theater. The play builds around a series of contrivances whose obviousness mars whatever merit the idea does possess.

Sharon (Linda Gehringer) is a lonely divorcee living in Iowa City who longs for a closer relationship with her son, a fashion designer in Manhattan with friends whom she suspects are “homosexual.” (Not her son, though!)

When she advertises for a roommate, Sharon hears from Robyn (Tessa Auberjonois), a gay vegan who smokes cigarettes and eventually arrives from halfway across the country with boxes of possessions, including little clay dolls that she claims are the products of her efforts at pottery. Like much else that Robyn tells Sharon, this turns out to be only partially true. Soon enough, she’s owned up to grifting — and Sharon, after her initial surprise, decides she’d like to try her hand at some of the phone scams and dope dealing Robyn’s been involved with. She turns out to be pretty good at pitching folks and getting them to send money, and she scores again when the ladies in her book club take to the weed she is distributing. Her cloying enthusiasm for these new pursuits startles even Robyn, who meanwhile has become caught up with the problematic relationships she’s tried to leave behind.

If this seems like a potentially sound blueprint for a bittersweet comedy or drama, well, it may be — but with potential as the operative word. From the opening moments, the playwright’s intent — constructing conflict around the cultural and emotional polarity between these two individuals — is not only crystal clear but blindingly so. Sharon’s innocence about her son’s predilections and just about everything else in the big wide world may be persuasive at a stretch, but having Robyn commit such faux pas as charging into the kitchen puffing on a cigarette (How many vegans do that?) plays like the awkward dramatic device that it is. And there are a whole series of these throughout the play.

Gehringer benefits from having the more fully fleshed-out role, and her Sharon is an empathetic figure even while the transformations the plot demands of her aren’t quite believable. As for Auberjonois, it’s never explained why her character, an expert con woman, chooses Iowa City to flee to, of all places. (There is one throwaway reference to her grandmother having lived there.) The character spends a lot of stage time playing the sophisticated foil to Gerhringer’s bumpkin. That seems to be structured into the script, and Martin Benson’s incurious direction underscores that dynamic.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; Tues.-Sun., 7:45 p.m.; Sat-Sun., 2 & 8 p.m.; through Jan. 22. No evening performance Jan. 22. (714) 708-555, www.scr.org. Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.

 

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