Arts & Theater

Theater review: ‘The Roommate’ offers a tried-and-true premise with strange twists

Actors Jamie Jones, left, and Laura Jane Bailey star in “The Roommate” at the Capital Stage.
Actors Jamie Jones, left, and Laura Jane Bailey star in “The Roommate” at the Capital Stage.

If you were one of those intrepid souls once assigned a freshman college essay on “roommates,” it’s unlikely you came up with anything like the pair you encounter in the current play at Capitol Stage. True, it has the bland, generic, evasive title “The Roommate,” perhaps a little like that movie “Philadelphia,” where you know the state, but can’t predict the neighborhood you’ll be in. You know the roommates will be thrown together somewhat haphazardly, a combination of economic necessity, a desire for companionship, or mere circumstance. And you wonder whether they will move toward friction and catastrophe or friendship and even romance. But the way this relationship develops and the roommates evolve takes us into strange and unexpected territory, challenging our notions of aging and identity.

These questions hover over Sharon, the Iowa homeowner, and her new roommate, Robyn from New York, when we first see them meeting in Sharon’s kitchen, adjacent to the back porch. They tentatively and occasionally with embarrassment explore a series of differences: Iowa, the Bronx; one prefers meat, the other is vegan; one drinks milk with her coffee, the other almond milk. One smokes, the other doesn’t. We wonder, can these two get along? At the beginning there are frequently embarrassed pauses, or “retreats” to a room, or to unpacking. But gradually as they learn more about each other, and we learn about them, they move closer together, into friendship.

The art of the play and the production is the seamless and lively transitions in embarrassed pauses, strained looks, as we move from one short scene to another. The transitions are often punctuated by a recognizable pop song in the background, to which the roommates occasionally dance. This is all about timing, nuance, subtle gestures and contrasts, for which the director Dina Martinez and the two actors, Laura Jane Bailey (Sharon) and Jamie Jones (Robyn) deserve almost equal credit. Hand gestures and comic facial expressions help Bailey fill out her role and amuse and inform the audience. Jones’ strategy as Robyn is often more subtle and subversive. After showing distaste and aversion to Sharon’s purchase of a gun at Walmart (to further their career as petty criminals and add excitement), once Sharon has left the room, Robyn expertly ejects the gun’s magazine, reinserts and tests the tool for position in an aggressive stance.

The two roommates veer from being opposites to almost seeming to merge, but their characters alter as they reveals formerly unseen depths. Sharon says about her son that “everybody thinks he’s a homosexual,” and Robyn remarks, “I’m gay.” Sharon offers a series of complex but obvious facial responses and hand gestures, ultimately concluding, “I don’t have any problem with homosexuals,” somewhat belying the content of her words. Robyn plays the superb sophisticated foil to Sharon’s seeming naivete – Sharon thinks the Bronx is a violent New York area unfit for women at night, and that most New Yorkers are gay. Robyn’s not only articulate but subtly savvy.

Robyn is, it would seem, far more knowing, articulate and clever. But she is also mysterious and far less defined. At first her body movements are more avoidant and restrained, but gradually she relaxes. Both identify themselves as “retired,” but so often in this play, words are reconceived and repositioned. Sharon is “retired” from marriage. Initially we don’t learn what Robyn did, to retire from. She is asked several times what she does, but avoids a clear, immediate response. Robyn hauls in a box of pottery dolls. She says she used to be a potter. But she still refuses to define herself or identify any career. Yet on some previous “jobs” she learned enough computer skills to aid Sharon in the world of computer dating.

The two characters begin in street clothes but regularly change wardrobe, indicating increasing informality and intimacy as the play develops. A step in this informality is Robyn’s smoking a joint: Sharon, unfamiliar, after coughing, learns to inhale. As in life, pot – which Robyn redefines as “medicinal herbs” – offers a transition, leads the way to strange closeness.

A key revelation comes when Sharon unpacks a box of Robyn’s clothing, tries on a beret, and finds a stash of driver’s licenses with Robyn’s photo and a recombinant DNA of pseudonyms. In the confrontation that follows, Robyn tries to account for her identity via another formulation, “I was born as a malleable, changeable template.”

The malleability of personality becomes the play’s theme or focus. Robyn is clearly expert in personality revision, as she is in linguistic definition: Sharon is intrigued, attracted; this is part of her self-transformation. In a witty scene later in the play, she phones an acquaintance, reveals a new skill in French-accented English, makes up a variety of explanations and gets the woman’s credit card number, purportedly to help Senegalese orphans. As she talks to this woman, Sharon is wearing the beret borrowed from Robyn and so her portrait of Senegal and orphans focuses on hats. Sharon is now creative, quirky, and successful, considering a future in pot distribution and quoting from the Harvard Business Review. Laura Jane Bailey is marvelous in the modulation of her self transformation to a far more confident, more risktaking, more dangerous person. Who is also now attracted not only to Robyn’s schemes, but to Robyn herself.

Robyn is also a theorist of words, in explaining herself as both lesbian and having had a husband: not bisexual, but “people find specific words for themselves because it’s easier than not having words. ... But it doesn’t mean those words are all accurate all the time.” The apparent fixity of identity and language and character is constantly under threat in this play, in marvelous and funny and unexpected ways.

If you go

“The Roommate,” by Jen Silverman

Where: Capital Stage, 2215 J St.

Cast: Directed by Dena Martinez, and starring Laura Jane Bailey and Jamie Jones.

When: The play runs through July 21 and offers performances Wednesday and Thursday nights at 7, Saturday and Sunday nights at 8, with matinees Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 2.

Cost: Tickets range from $30 to $42

Info and tickets: 916-995-5464,