An odd relationship develops between Sharon (played by Susi Damilano, left) and Robyn (Julia Brothers) in “The Roommate” at SF Playhouse.
It’s clear from the start of Jen Silverman’s play “The Roommate” at San Francisco Playhouse that Sharon’s new roommate has something to hide. Having suddenly relocated from the Bronx to Iowa, Robyn is cagey about her moving boxes and evasive about a lot of questions. And why’d she decide to move to Iowa anyway?
Played with a furtive quality by Julia Brothers, Robyn is in turn obviously perplexed by Sharon, the nervously chatty and sunny empty nester who keeps blurting out inappropriate questions and embarrassing observations. For instance, she insists that her adult son in New York (whom she calls too much and frets when he doesn’t answer) isn’t gay, despite a lot of indications to the contrary, made all the more awkward by the fact that the person to whom she’s making all these assertions is a lesbian.
SF Playhouse producing director Susi Damilano is awfully funny as Sharon, overflowing with anxious energy and poor impulse control. Sharon makes a big point of not being from Iowa but from more cosmopolitan Illinois, but has clearly led a very sheltered life. She’s shocked, or at least thrown, by the smallest things, so how’s she going to take whatever big secret Robyn is being so shifty about? The answer takes the play into some delightfully strange and thorny territory.
The tension underlying their amusing conversations is palpable in director Becca Wolff’s well-tempered production. Brothers has some marvelous moments in which Robyn has the near-panicked expression of a cornered animal that’s immediately replaced by a nonchalant smile as soon as Sharon turns to look at her.
Nina Ball’s superb set depicts the spacious, well-stocked kitchen of a roomy house with no walls, just the skeletal outline of the white molding, with Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s scenic projections of wide open sky visible through them. The interstitial music in Hulsker’s sound design is particularly well chosen, with angelic wordless vocalizations over increasingly tense background rhythms.
It’s hard to talk about without spoiling the secret, but what’s so affecting about the play is how Sharon’s limited world opens up by getting to know Robyn, all the more so because it takes such effort to break through her new housemate’s protective barriers.
These changes aren’t all good by any means, but Sharon is giddy with a new sense of possibility after clinging so long to routine. It’s much more of a mixed bag for Robyn, for whom talking about what she doesn’t want to talk about risks dragging herself back into a past that she very deliberately left behind.
Silverman’s dialogue is wonderfully sharp, and there are a few eloquent philosophical gems strewn through the dark comedy. “Is that a poem?” Sharon asks herself periodically after she says something unexpectedly beautiful and profound.
It’s a well crafted story, but far from a tidy one. There’s a lot of fun to be had, but it has its price, and we can’t and don’t know what the extent of that is. All we can be sure of is that life for these two will never be the same again.
Contact Sam Hurwitt at email@example.com, and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.
By Jen Silverman, presented by San Francisco Playhouse
Through: July 1
Where: San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco
Running time: One hour and 50 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $20-$125; 415-677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org