SF Playhouse’s fun ‘Roommate’ takes inconceivable turn

In the first half of playwright Jen Silverman’s two-hander “The Roommate,” now in a Bay Area premiere at San Francisco Playhouse, Robyn, a lesbian from the Bronx (played by the lanky and wonderfully dry Julia Brothers), has just arrived, with luggage, at the Iowa City home of lonely divorcee Sharon (Susi Damilano, engagingly bouncy and eager-to-please).

The two, in their mid-50s, are strangers to each other and cliché opposites in what at first seems to be a mildly amusing “Odd Couple”-ish comedy.

Anxious, preternaturally unworldly Sharon, an empty-nester, refers politely to “homosexual people” and has never tried marijuana or encountered almond milk.

Unflappable Robyn, a vegan who’s trying to quit smoking (cigarettes), and installs a cannabis plant on the kitchen windowsill, says she’s a former slam-poet who now wants to garden (“restorative manual labor,” she calls it).

But Robyn is mysterious. For one thing, she’s overly protective of a cardboard box full of small dolls. For another, she tersely deflects all Sharon’s innocently invasive questions about her past life, including whether she has children.

The plot turns, and the tension escalates, when Sharon, snooping through roomie’s still-packed boxes, discovers some suspicious items.

As directed by Becca Wolf, the differences between the two are accentuated: Sharon’s giggly and pony-tailed, Robyn wears a wife-beater and boots and so on, further setting up a dichotomy in which the two women will, predictably, influence each other’s lifestyles.

Just how they end up doing so comprises the second half of the play, when suddenly things take a more serious turn; although, for better or for worse, Wolf keeps the comedy broad.

But here’s where the playwright loses credibility. If only she’d taken that second half seriously — had been truly insightful or revealing in examining the psyches of these two women — then the play would have seemed more authentic.

Instead we’re presented with an implausible scenario: Sharon, as expected, discovers her inner wild child, which Silverman intends as essentially a life-affirming thing.

Yet within the context of this realistic play, that transformation doesn’t ring true. Worse, it has no moral center to it. And the future of Robyn, whom we’ve come to care about, is left dangling.

So what starts out as a lightweight audience-pleaser, and takes a suspenseful and potentially rewarding twist part-way through, ultimately feels hollow.

The Roommate
Where: San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes July 1
Tickets: $20 to $125
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org

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