Rarely does such a sitcom-meets-Will Ferrel/Adam-McKay premise lead to glorious pedanticism, but playwright Jen Silverman revels in the unexpected.
The first scenes of The Roommate — her deliberately topsy-turvy two-hander at the Williamstown Theatre Festival — initially feel like a waste of her unconventional mind for those who appreciated the whirlwind dramaturgy of The Moors, her previous play. Why would such a refreshingly challenging young scribe stoop to writing a straightforward comedy about all-too-conveniently mismatched roommates — one a wholesome midwesterner (S. Epatha Merkerson), the other a coastal sinner (Jane Kaczmarek) — that could be mistaken for yet another Odd Couple redux?
Yet as director Mike Donahue’s thematically-enlightening production unfolds, Silverman’s staid opening — which comes with a plethora of crowd-pleasing one-liners — is revealed to be a necessary introduction to her dramatic rumination on the ever-fluctuating nature of humanity’s subjective reality. In an expert example of content dictating form, the tonal identity of the play changes along with the identities of her characters.
The turn crucially occurs in the most realistic depiction of marijuana-smoking on a stage in recent memory (its importance is underscored by the bong that appears in the production’s official artwork). Instead of the partaking two ladies devolving into the wildly inaccurate stereotype of becoming bumbling idiots with voracious appetites, the au naturel drug only slightly alters their state of consciousness, facilitating a newfound openness and perspective regarding their burgeoning relationship and life itself, particularly for first-time-toker Sharon (Merkerson). A regular old plant being able to subtly influence her conception of everyday reality calls into question the restricting notion of permanent existential objectivity. In response, she rapidly redesigns her very being.
As she adopts a progressively different persona from scene to scene, the transitions between them feature Scott Zielinski’s lighting design illuminating the pot plants in Dane Laffrey’s set, which both emphasizes their role in her transformation and forsakes the formulaic naturalism of the beginning. This overt indicator of the presence of creators outside the play’s reality adds a layer of meta-theatrical subtext that was always lurking quietly beneath the words since the start; for instance, Robyn’s (Kaczmarek) references to tornados foregrounds the impending identity storm.
The changes both women undergo feel unbelievably abrupt, thereby raising awareness of Silverman’s puppeteering and compelling the audience to focus on her noticeable manipulations as much as the plot’s organic development (Sharon’s clay creations reinforce the critical role of creators in these proceedings). Merkerson and Kaczmarek’s performances further this meta-agenda; they both turn in enjoyably fleshed-out characterizations that aptly border on caricatures, another nod to the production’s self-examination. They also feel a tad outside their characters, as if they haven’t fully lived in them yet, especially for those aware of how against their usual role-types they’re playing. By not being entirely convincing, these two marvelous actresses call attention to the multiple identities residing within them at all times.
All of these meta-theatrical factors lend the production a faint Brechtian vibe, inspiring persistent pondering of an audience’s personal relationship to the art in front of them. By spotlighting the weed during the scene transitions — which are the most obvious perpetual reminders that this is indeed art and not real life — the production draws a connection between the effects of Mary Jane and the effects of art on their consumers: they’re both in the business of modest consciousness altering.
The title of this piece of art and its story can even be interpreted to describe that relationship. This sort of play is kind of like a roommate: it temporarily moves into the same space as you, hopefully impacts your psyche in various ways (albeit to a lesser degree than Robyn’s stamp on Sharon), then leaves before making sense of everything.
[SPOILER ALERTS AHEAD]
Similar to how Sharon must re-establish her sense of order after “Tornado” Robyn blows through her life, the audience too should reckon with the play’s implications after they leave the theatre. Though identity can be changed as easily as a playwright can change the status of her created world, people cannot ignore forever the reality outside their personal changes, exemplified by her son’s voicemail at the end that serves as a reminder of her external responsibilities. Sharon must return to her old life, now with the awareness that she’s free to moderately rewrite her identity like a work of art. She communicates this concept to the audience in another form of art: a poem, one that fittingly ends with the word “liberating.”
As much as I roll my eyes at everyone nowadays connecting art that’s been in development for years to America’s political climate, The Roommate could be interpreted to comment on this country’s current bubble dilemma. The midwest meets the coast through the characters, and Silverman explores how each’s perceived identity is in no way innate nor unchangeable, but rather mere responses to their respective environments. By exposing themselves to influences that provide perspectives outside their own (such as art, drugs, diversity, etc.), they can transcend their identity bubbles. The production’s casting highlights this character-crossing possibility: the pearly white midwest is represented by a person of color, and a diverse coast is represented by a caucasian.
All sorts of art — from the formalism of the beginning to the more abstract finish — has the power to mildly reshape conceptions of reality, ala smoking a joint. How each audience member implements in their lives the ideas imparted through this art/smoke is entirely up to their own subjectively-retroactive analysis, much like this interpretation of Jen Silverman’s The Roommate.