Jen Silverman reinvigorates the surefire (if overly familiar) odd-couple comedy in The Roommate, a South Coast Repertory West Coast Premiere that may well defy credibility in its final scenes but never fails to entertain, particularly as performed by a crackerjack couple of SoCal stage treasures.

 No two roommates since Neil Simon’s Oscar and Felix have been as mismatched from the get-go as divorced Iowa Citian Sharon (Linda Gehringer) and fresh-outta-The Bronx Robyn (Tessa Auberjonois), the duo sharing little more than their 50something-&-single status and Sharon’s Midwest home.

Robyn’s a vegan who’s arrived with her own set of cooking utensils and a goya for lunch. (“It’s a vegetable. A bitter gourd.”) Sharon’s probably never eaten an exotic veggie in her life.

Sharon wouldn’t think of locking her doors (“This is Iowa.”) but she’s willing to start locking them if it would make Robyn more comfortable.

Robyn seems almost as scared of the tornadoes Sharon takes for granted (“You just go on down to the basement till they pass.”) as Sharon is of New York City. (“Isn’t The Bronx … dangerous?”)

Oh, and Robyn’s a lesbian, news that refreshingly doesn’t faze Sharon (“Gay rights! Let them marry!”), whose Park Slope-residing fashion designer son is most certainly “not a homosexual” (or at least not where Mom’s concerned) despite a coterie of mostly gay friends and a “tall, lovely” (male) roommate.

 All in all a setup not all that different from the odd-couple comedies we’ve seen before, leading us to expect the expected.

Sharon will learn from Robyn. Robyn will learn from Sharon. Each will get the life makeover she needs. If this were Wicked, they’d each end up singing to the other, “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”

Still, playwright Silverman has more than cookie-cutter feel-good on her mind, and though Sharon’s journey does stretch plausibility near the end, it’s The Roommate’s unexpected twists and turns that make it such an unexpectedly tangy treat.

It helps enormously that ace director Martin Benson has cast a divine duo of SCR favorties as his leading ladies.

 Gehringer, fresh from playing Vicuña’s tough-as-nails Kitty at the Kirk Douglas, is guileless perfection as Sharon blossoms from wallflower to orchid, discovering depths of feeling (and a capacity for taking chances) she did not know was in her.

Rendered virtually unrecognizable by an earth-mother wig and some added padding, Auberjonois matches her partner in crime every step of the way as a woman who finds it harder than she’d hoped to turn over a new leaf.

Scenic designer John Iacovelli has given Sharon a kitchen/dinette that any Midwesterner will recognize (how all that eleventh-hour clutter shows up as if by magic is anybody’s guess), and Brian Gale lights it to perfection. Costume designer Angela Balogh Calin has outfitted Sharon and Robyn in precisely the clothes you’d expect to find in their closets. Michael Roth’s original music is the composer’s mood-setting best, his “soundscape” adding too to The Roommate’s considerable impact.

Jackie S. Hill is production manager. Kathryn Davies is stage manager. Casting is by Joanne DeNaut, CSA.

 That rarity among contemporary plays, one that allows women over fifty to take centerstage and shine, The Roommate opens South Coast Repertory’s Winter 2017 slate of West Coast Premieres with an Iowa City-meets-The Bronx bang.

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South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
January 10, 2017
Photos: Debora Robinson, Ben Horak, SCR


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