9/28/2019        THE ROOMMATE                                       Aurora Theatre

THE FREEDOM IN BEING BAD

Early in The Roommate, Jen Silverman's play about two women "of a certain age" sharing an Iowa home, Sharon suddenly decides she wants to write some "Slam Poetry."  Robyn, her mysterious new roommate, comments, "It'll be bad.  First poems always are.  But there is a certain freedom to being bad."  This appears to be the dominant motif in what could have been a memorable character piece about an "odd couple" finding a "middle ground" of friendship and understanding.

But it is also illustrative of what I found incomprehensibly wrong about the play. Sharon is too quick to adopt Robyn's preferences and choices.  She is a lonely empty-nest divorcee who seems to think friendship is about subverting her own characer, becoming so co-dependent she finally disappears entirely.  

And Robyn is hardly the ideal "object of co-dependence."  It turns out she thrives on misbehavior, on "rattling the cage," on getting a thrill out of victimizing anyone and everyone.

Which is a shame, because this production features performances by two of Atlanta's finest actresses, Terry Burrell (Sharon) and Megan McFarland (Robyn) that (almost) makes these two characters palatable.  They are given a depth not justified by the script, and their memorable performances have the counter-productive effect of making me dislike the play even more.

It's also a shame that Jen Silverman writes crackling good dialogue, with lines that amuse, even elicit (uncomfortable) laughter.  It's a shame that the gradual revelation of the depths of Robyn's bad behaviour unfolds like a thriller.  It;s a shame and that Ms. Silverman can generate enough interest in these women to keep our minds intrigued and our attention engaged.  But it doesn't take long to wonder if the playwright is just too young to really understand women "of a certain age."  Her on-line biography does not include her age, but her photos reveal a woman who is still decades away from the age (and life experiences) of her characters.  As a person "of a certain age" myself, my visceral reaction to her work is "She doesn't know me or my generation."  No wonder I found her play depressingly shallow, her characters unconvincing.

On a technical level, the production is up to the Aurora's usual high standards.  The set by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay is an attractive and comfortable kitchen, reflecting the years Sharon has spent there, the comfortable "nest" she has created for herself.  That she does not treat Robyn as an "invader" is only he first signal that this play would be a "bumpy" ride for me.  Mike Morin's lights and Lorenzo Moore's sound also go miles to create a palatable mood and atmosphere.  David Koté's direction, however, seems lackluster, with long stretches of languid pacing;  and why did he choose to keep a handful of Sharon's moving boxes on the "porch" for her entire stay?  That just didn't make logistical sense to me.

So, yes, the play does end with Sharon's "Bad Poem," but it is not bad enough to be funny or good enough to warrant the time we have spent with her.  I left this play wondering why playwright Silverman wanted to teach us the lesson that crime can be a bonding experience and that co-dependence is the answer to loneliness.  At one point, Sharon even suggests getting the 12-year-old daughter of a rival to help them sell their "medicinal herbs" to classmates.  Dealing drugs to children?  Really?  To her credit, Robyn nixes this plan.  On the other hand, at another point, Robyn revels in her telephone scams, blithely ignoring the effect such identity and credit card theft has on her "marks."  I could only sympathize with those victims.

The Roommate is an object lesson in NOT "writing what you don't know."  It really provides no justification for the time spent with these characters.  Their situation strikes no empathetic chords in me, and I ended up resenting Ms. Silverman for her vision of loneliness, her embrace of amorality, her limited grasp of what it's like to be over fifty.

But, my goodness, what a remarkable display of acting range and skill!  

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #AuroraRoommate )

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