‘Room’ for Improvement: ‘The Roommate’ at SF Playhouse

Roommate at SF Playhouse programme

“Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine.”
– Mary Schmich, “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young”, Chicago Tribune, 1 June 1997
(The essay gained wide notice as part of Baz Luhrmann’s “Everybody’s Free [To Wear Sunscreen])

As I sat in the SF Playhouse, admiring yet another stunning Nina Ball set as Heart’s “Barracuda” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” played over the speakers, I tried to challenge myself to think of when I last saw or read a story or script centered around two middle-aged (or older) women. I’m ashamed to say that as I sat there, I drew a blank. I may have briefly thought of Mamet’s Boston Marriage, but I don’t think those women were meant to be middle-aged. Hell, I haven’t even seen the recent Bette and Joan, so the last story I saw or read even close to the description must have been some time ago.

As guys, we take it for granted just how easy it is to get our voices heard. A female friend of mine – a great local stand-up comedian – tweeted this hilarious post on Easter Sunday this year. It reminds you of how guys like Bill Cosby can get away with assaulting women for decades, but the world takes notice once a male stand-up points out the hypocrisy. Or even how Batman and Superman have had about sixteen movies between the two of them over the past 40 years (not even counting their big-screen serials from the 1940s), but Wonder Woman just got her first one this year. Acknowledging that women don’t get the same opportunities as men is not a plea for preferential treatment of women, it’s a proven fact. The world needs more stories by and about women.

The Roommate is written by a woman, directed by a woman, and utilizes a primarily-female crew. Most importantly, it’s refreshing change of pace, as it’s a story in which the only two characters to appear on stage are two women in their 50s. The problem is that the story’s just isn’t very good.

Roommate at SF Playhouse set

Set by Nina Ball. Photo by Me.

Neither of these women expected to wind up in a quaint two-story suburban in Iowa, but here they are: “retired” homemaker Sharon from Illinois, and Robyn from the Bronx – it’s unclear what past occupation(s) she had. They make quite the motley couple: the latter a vegan lesbian from NY; the former an English major given to the frequent verbal faux pas.

For such a dichotomy of personalities and life experiences, the two eventually become friends. Then they wind up changing each other’s lives in ways neither of them could have expected.

Watching the first half of this play felt like watching a mid-season replacement sitcom: the forced jokes and clichéd scenarios smacked of a failed pilot that the network is just dumping into this empty slot until a new episode of Bob’s Burgers comes back in two weeks. I’d say it’s trying to be a female version of The Odd Couple, but there actually is a female version of The Odd Couple. The latter half of the play – after we’ve learned about “Robyn’s” past – actually shows the promise of a better show. Granted, it’s one that also seems derivative of a sitcom (Jenji Kohan’s Weeds), but at least this half of the show attempts to turn the ladies into actual human characters, rather than the stereotypes we meet at the beginning. This play just proves that nearly everything is improved by playing Pat Benetar’s “Heartbreaker”.

Still, this more relatable turn in the characters results in an overall darker tone in the play proper. So much so, in fact, that it seems as if playwright Jen Silverman is trying to torture poor Sharon for the sake of the author’s own masochistic glee. Both characters start off the play more-or-less escaping to Iowa to start their lives anew. Both of them are escaping the places they knew as home and the people they called family. It’s presumptuous for us to expect they’ll find true happiness here, but Silverman seems so intent on withholding any ultimate joy from these ladies with a determination that borders on nihilism. And I say that as someone who’s performed Sarah Kane and Chekov.

Director Becca Wolf certainly seems to be making the most of the aforementioned Nina Ball set, never letting the actors get lost in the wide open space of the “sliced open” stage. Still, Wolf makes the bewildering decision to have the transitions – the majority of which could easily have been done by the actors in-character – done by stagehands. They aren’t invisible and break whatever verisimilitude the preceding scene achieved.

Then there are the ladies themselves. Although their performances improve as the play moves on (and gets darker), their “sitcom-y” performances in the first half are far too broadly drawn: Julia Brothers playing “Robyn” (if that is her real name) as the clichéd husky-voiced lesbian in flannel; Susi Damilano as the Carol Brady-esque housewife. Perhaps the intention was to have them begin as caricatures before we got to know them better? Whatever the case, it doesn’t work.

I can say the opposite of the production’s technical details: Ball’s set is brought to vivid life by prop designer Jacquelyn Scott and lighting designer Robert Hand. I also got a real kick out of Theodore JH Hulsker’s upstage background projections. Simple “day” and “night” backgrounds can easily lead a projectionist to over-the-top (does every night sky need to show the stars rotating on an axis?), but Hulsker’s images are beautiful without being distracting.

The world isn’t exactly starving for more stories about Straight White men who “come to understandings” about things. That’s not to say such a story is inherently bad, just that it’s been told ad nauseam and we could do with more tales that go down a different path. But just as the former stories aren’t inherently bad, neither are the latter stories inherently good – each is still required to stand on its own merits. The Roommate isn’t a great story, but its subject matter highlights just how much this type of story is often lacking.

GRADE:                C-

The Roommate is scheduled to run until the 1st of July at the San Francisco Playhouse.
The show runs roughly 100 minutes with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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