Margaret Daly and Tasha Lawrence in The Roommate.
By Jen Silverman
Directed by Mike Donahue
Review by Eli Keel
Entire contents copyright © 2015 by Eli Keel. All rights reserved
On Friday, Actor’s Theatre of Louisville opened the 39th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays with Jen Silverman’s The Roommate.
Being slightly familiar with Silverman’s work I was expecting something fraught with danger and strangeness, something that explored the violent history of our culture and perhaps a deconstruction of gender norms and identity.
Instead the packed Bingham Theatre was treated to an out and out laugh riot.
The Roommate is the story of two women getting to know each other through sudden and random shared co-habitation. Sharon (Margaret Daly) is a quiet mother and divorced wife. She goes to book club, and the store sometimes. She has only ever been defined by her relationship to those people in her life that she serves in traditional female roles. Robyn (Tasha Lawrence) is a stranger from the big city with wild habits.
Both actors are pitch perfect from the first word. Daly as Sharon arguably gets more laughs, as her wide eyed innocence is employed mercilessly to make the audience guffaw and chuckle at every awkward pause and moment of discovery.
Lawrence as Tasha gives a less flashy performance as the “straight man” (happily she is neither) of the comedic duo. She still gets her share of laughs. Her wry looks speak volumes, and wrangle their own explosions from the often-breathless audience.
As a play, The Roommate will get compared to Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple a lot. It’s probably going to enjoy a really long life in Equity houses and community theaters around the country. It’s just that good, and just that fun. The Odd Couple comparison is fair, but the play owes equal debts to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.
For as much as Robyn changes and grows, the play is more the story of Sharon’s awakening as she considers a wide host of new opportunities, experiences, and identity that are brought to her through her growing friendship with Robyn. This woman is more than the sum of what she can do or has done for the men in her life. Thankfully, the play has a much happier ending that Chopin’s seminal feminist novel.
That aforementioned discussion of gender roles I was expecting is undoubtedly here, but it is Trojan Horsed inside a buddy comedy.
The play isn’t without it’s drama, but there is little of the false confrontation and vitriol we often see in other miss-matched buddy comedies. The characters don’t need to blow up at each other. The simple discomfort and oddness of being in a new situation is more than enough to power the drama.
And just when everything gets almost too easy, Silverman ends the play with a tonal shift that saves the piece from becoming saccharine.
The direction by Mike Donahue feels spot on, and he helps both actors look like geniuses.
The Roommate is a strong opener for the Humana Festival. Hopefully, the rest of the new plays we see will be equally excellent.
March 5 – April 1, 2015
Part of the 39th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
[box_light]Eli Keel is a Louisville based playwright, poet, storyteller, and freelance journalist. He has been published in Word Hotel, his plays have been produced by Theatre  and Finnigan Productions, and he was invited to read his work at the 2014 Writer’s Block. He is a frequent contributor to Insider Louisville, where he has been given the (informal) title of “Chief of the Bureau of Quirk.”[/box_light]