The characters in Jen Silverman’s play The Roommate are sheep in wolves’ clothing. The playwright claims to have written characters who are “badasses.” They smoke pot, cheat senior citizens out of money, are sexually fluid and turn Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker” up real loud. But a better fit for the soundtrack would be “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan.”
Marianne Faithfull’s dirge about suburban domesticity sums up Sharon’s (Susi Damilano) state of doldrums. When we first meet her, she’s fused her identity with everything ordinary about Iowa. Her husband left her, not for another woman, but to pursue a hobby, building model airplanes. Divorced at 54, the highlight of her social life is a reading group. Sharon isn’t suffering from ennui — she’s just plain bored.
Enter her new roommate Robyn (Julia Brothers), a recent transplant from New York City’s grit and bustle. As written, she’s night to Sharon’s day. Robyn is a vegetarian (she grows her own vegetables), a lesbian (with an unexplained daughter), a smoker (trying to quit), and a dubious past from which she’s escaping.
Brothers, when first confronted with Sharon’s unblinking innocence — “Isn’t the Bronx dangerous?” — plays Robyn’s knowingness archly, and directly to the audience. Like Groucho Marx, she wants us urban sophisticates to be in on the joke with her. Silverman wants her to represent experience. Without articulating it, that’s what Sharon has been longing for. In Robyn, she finds a wish fulfillment fantasy, and her shadow self.
The plot, in which two women become one, is an all-American version of Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona. Instead of his existential approach lined with dread, Silverman sets up a country mouse, city mouse dynamic. In that way, The Roommate provides a more relatable realism. Who wouldn’t want a new best friend to share late night secrets with? Who wouldn’t want excitement to change places with a life gone numb with routine?
Where Bergman can visually merge the identities of his co-stars in an edit suite, the playwright here has to convince us that, under Robyn’s influence, Sharon’s slowly undergoing a transformation. As Robyn begins to confess her past indiscretions, Sharon’s first instinct is to recoil. But when they share a marijuana joint together, she starts to embrace her dark side. Despite Damilano’s deep dive into her character’s humdrum life, her transition from angel to devil comes abruptly.
If Sharon didn’t start out as such a complete naif, so unworldly, if she had been written with a flicker of sarcasm or a hint of malice, then her foray into Robyn’s criminal schemes might have made more sense. Her Lucy Jordan moment comes when she digs through Robyn’s things and finds a beret. She puts the black hat on, affects a French accent, and imagines herself in Paris. Damilano plays the scene for laughs and though her approach elicits them, it was a safe choice. At this turning point in her life, Sharon is at once pathetic and potentially full of pathos.
Silverman also resists the idea of Robyn being the aggressor, a lesbian seductress. After all the misdeeds in her past life as a con, Robyn arrives in Iowa vulnerable, defeated, eager for a fresh start. But her narrative arc only arrives to serve Sharon’s. Eventually, Sharon instigates, what ends up as, an unwanted kiss. Robyn, of course, may or may not be attracted to Sharon, but she never says either way.
What she does understand, in a way that Sharon cannot, is that the kiss was planted as a passionate expression of gratitude. Like the beret, it was a temporary experiment, the start of self-expression and the end to living half-asleep. Thanks to Robyn, and what she represents, those few minutes of Sharon’s Gallic make-believe might yet come true.
The Roommate, through July 1, at S.F. Playhouse, 450 Post St., 415-677-9596 or sfplayhouse.org/sfph