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'The Roommate' A Problematic Relationship Comedy At Long Wharf

As you may expect from its title, Jen Silverman’s “The Roommate,” opening the 2018-19 season at the Long Wharf Theatre, is an odd-couple play. It has a lot in common with Neil Simon comedies about growing older, staying relevant in a changing world, surviving a broken relationship and coping with friends and family. The play seeks to be edgy, modern and dangerous, but its debt to old-fashioned relationship comedies is clear.

A divorced woman in Iowa named Sharon has a spacious house and no one to share it with, so she advertises for a roommate. In comes Robyn, a hard-bitten New Yorker hiding a few secrets and perhaps just hiding out.

Some of Robyn’s secrets are benign: She smokes cigarettes on the sly. Others are more alarming, to Sharon at least: Robyn smokes pot. She even grows it. Sharon doesn’t even know what a pot plant looks like.

Robyn: “It’s medicinal herbs.”

Sharon: “Oh, I thought it was drugs.”

Other topics under discussion by the women, as they grow closer and begin to influence each other’s lives, include homosexuality and bisexuality, forgery and phone scams, veganism and the “weird” taste of almond milk.

Silverman sticks Robyn and Sharon in a series of awkward, presumably amusing situations. The women are shown to affect each other’s behavior and tastes. Sharon becomes bolder. Robyn develops a stronger conscience, realizing that her small-level criminal schemes have consequences.

Yes, there’s a scene in which Sharon drinks almond milk for the first time, and one in which she smokes marijuana. Forty-year-old Patti Smith records are called “new music” and put on for raucous kitchen dancing as Sharon continues to loosen up.

A lot of the dialogue seems set up for obvious punchlines or clunky plot twists. Sharon, for instance, seems clueless about New York City, then later reveals that she has a son living in Park Slope. Sharon frets about online dating services, but the fact that she used similar means to find a housemate doesn’t register. Often the back-and-forth banter just doesn’t ring true.

Robyn and Sharon are in their 50s, and “The Roommate” has been praised for creating strong roles for women of that age. In program notes, Silverman states that this was an impetus for her writing the play: “It’s rare for us to see exciting, provocative, complicated, morally ambiguous portraits of older women onstage or on screen.”

“Rare” may be somewhat overstated, since in recent seasons at Long Wharf alone there have been compelling, complex middle-aged or elderly female characters in “Small Mouth Sounds,” “Fireflies,” “Crowns,” “Other People’s Money,” “Napoli, Brooklyn” and “Lewiston,” to name just a few. Hartford Stage (with “Seder,” “Lesson From Aloes,” “Cloud 9” and even “Anastasia”) and numerous other regional theaters also fare pretty well in this regard.

The problem with “The Roommate” is that its enlightened view of the lives and tastes of women in their 50s is delivered alongside simplistic, stereotypical views of dull, naive Midwesterners and unflappable, culturally enlightened tough-as-nails New Yorkers.

“The Roommate” had its world premiere at the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival in Kentucky three years ago. That production had the same director (Mike Donahue) and one of the same actors (Tasha Lawrence) as this one. But it has a very different ending, one that is less fraught, less eerie and less real-world. It fits the overall comedic tone of the play better. But it also seems tacked-on, interchangeable, a way to end the play but not to make a useful concluding statement. It suggests that Silverman is more interested in these two characters she’s created than in broader themes of contemporary living.

Linda Powell is well-cast as Sharon. Last seen at Long Wharf as Mrs. Gibbs in “Our Town” in 2017, Powell knows how to play the wide-eyed innocent. As Robyn, Lawrence chooses not to play into the comedy, finding a more distanced and deadpan humor in Robyn’s free-willed independence.

Silverman’s Gothic breakdown “The Moors,” which premiered at Yale Rep in 2016, balanced style and substance brilliantly and bloodthirstily. Her “That Poor Girl and How He Killed Her,” which Connecticut Repertory Theatre presented last year in their Studio series, is a razor-sharp satire about how social media deadens the soul. The Long Wharf itself held a staged reading of Silverman’s cleverly structured multigenerational drama-with-music “All the Roads Home” last year, and the playwright is currently earning raves for her “Collective Rage: A Play in Five Betties” off Broadway.

Compared to those other works, “The Roommate” is tame and tentative, and Mike Donahue has done much more creative stagings than this. The play wants to explore modern culture clashes and changing times, but seems uncertain where to take a stand. It lacks the attractive rage and recklessness for which Silverman has become known, and it’s just not as funny as it could be.

THE ROOMMATE runs through Nov. 4 at the Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Dr., New Haven. $30 $91.50. 203-787-4282, longwharf.org

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