- Courtesy Of Lindsay Raymondjack Photography
- Kathryn Blume (left) and Karen Lefkoe
Jen Silverman's two-character play The Roommate starts by mining the comedy in a pair of fiftysomething women of opposite temperaments sharing a house. Then it switches gears to turn them into renegades in a buddy escapade. Neither situation is fully realized; the play is at its best during the brief midpoint, when the women are transforming from strangers to friends and learning how to take on the best qualities in each other. But the jokes lie in changes that are fairy-tale big and comic-book crazy. In the Vermont Stage production, strong performances make up for a lightweight script.
Sharon is a middle-class divorcée whose Iowa house is a tidy fortress of order, calm and wallpaper borders. Robyn wears hell-with-it punk fashion, paints her lips and nails dark red, and speaks evasively about her past. Robyn jangles with a city vibe while Sharon placidly wipes the kitchen counter.
Robyn has answered Sharon's ad for a roommate, and for some reason this wild roulette spin doesn't make them worry about a mismatch. The play glides right over this plot bump to get the laughs started.
And start they do, because Karen Lefkoe, as Sharon, and Kathryn Blume, as Robyn, infuse the show with cheer and energy. Robyn's last address was in the Bronx. She's saying nothing about what brings her to Iowa but quickly defines herself as a vegan, a lesbian, a potter and a slam poet. None of these attributes explain why Robyn is so vague about her past, and eventually Sharon wonders if her new roommate might have something to hide.
In the first scenes, though, Sharon is as trusting as a baby. If Robyn can't have animal products, Sharon will start pouring almond milk in her coffee, too — the first of many changes she absorbs like the thirstiest of sponges. Her accommodations extend to taking on Robyn's anxieties. Sharon is proud of her peaceable hometown and has to blink twice before offering, "But I could lock the doors if you wanted to."
The story's early fun lies in Sharon's doe-eyed innocence. Lefkoe is hilarious at making the play's gross stereotype of midwestern mindlessness play like sweet, natural curiosity. As humorous as this is, it quickly reaches a peak when Robyn shares her marijuana with Sharon. The playwright is now left with two characters who are neither friends nor strangers, neither treading on each other's toes nor sharing life lessons.
The plot then takes a bold turn and begins to run on surprises that shouldn't be disclosed in a review. Structurally, this speedy, 90-minute play needs to balance two roles of equal weight, but the story confines Robyn to stirring up Sharon's life, almost inadvertently. Neither character has a real problem, nor are they truly transformed by the action. But they each get to try on little bits of each other's lives for a while.
The play earns many of its laughs by taking the characters further than we might guess they'd go. Blume and Lefkoe have the acting commitment to get Robyn and Sharon into absurd situations and the skill to make the transitions look effortless.
Lefkoe converts what's downright silly about Sharon into genuinely endearing simplicity. Sharon's bright smile seems eager, not infantile, and Lefkoe renders the character's nervous, nonstop talking as a cheerful, bubbling fountain. As written, Sharon's naiveté verges on cultural illiteracy, but Lefkoe makes it adorable. Though the character's story arc is somewhat goofy, her wide-eyed wonder works its magic on the audience, and on Robyn.
Robyn's free-spiritedness seems to consist primarily of preferring Sriracha to ketchup and trying to smoke indoors. But a solid performance from Blume fills a skin-deep character with vitality. The role is so underwritten that much of the character's personal development goes no further than changing her clothes from grunge to mom jeans, but Blume is a consistently strong foil for Lefkoe.
The audience is seated in two banks of seats forming an L, facing a set with a nicely detailed kitchen and porch. Director Cristina Alicea tells some of the story through the characters' spatial relationship, letting their proximity reveal their ease with each other. Alicea sprinkles on the right amount of velocity, comedy's main ingredient, and for the most part the show glides effortlessly. At Thursday's performance, the opening scene was a little off pace, but the production soon picked up steam.
When Sharon overreacts to disappointment, the story is told through brief, solo vignettes set to pop music chosen for maximum lyrical punch. Between blackouts, we see Sharon trying out all the clichés of misery. Lefkoe's spot-on behavior and Alicea's precise blocking elicit a lot of laughs, and sound designer Martha Goode seems to have found every jukebox button the lovelorn like to push. The effect is the show's funniest arc, though it traces despair.
Robyn starts out in rebellious attire and ends in mall-shopper garb, while Sharon traces the same route in the opposite direction. Costume designer Cora Fauser hits nicely nuanced markers along this broad journey, but misfires when Sharon stops looking cool in her new persona and verges on laughingstock.
Scenic designer Chuck Padula and lighting designer Alan Hefferon create the homiest of middle-American homes. The kitchen gives Sharon's initially empty life just the right texture and readily accommodates the character's changes.
The Roommate is an Instagram of a comedy — light, entertaining and brisk. Silverman may have created only superficial characters, but she has given them an opportunity to be outlandish, which is its own form of fun. The playwright runs away from a dilemma she can't resolve with an abrupt ending, but the journey is diverting, thanks to two fine actors.