Two middle-aged women, each on wildly different journeys of transformation intersect in “The Roommate,” receiving its San Diego Premiere at New Village Arts Theatre.
Sharon, played by Milena (Sellers) Phillips, is a chatty Midwesterner whose son lives a thousand miles away and routinely ignores his mother’s multiple-times-a-day phone calls and text messages. Seeking companionship and extra cash, an ad for a roommate brings into Sharon’s neat-and-tidy life Robyn (Kim Strassburger), a hot mess from the Bronx, who arrives lugging a box labeled “Self Care Shit” and a take-no-prisoners attitude.
Getting to know each other over coffee, Sharon breathlessly relays she is recently divorced, has a boring part-time job and no social life other than her book club. She wants a completely different reality but is convinced she’s too old to start anew. “You are younger than most U.S. presidents,” less-than-sympathetic Robyn deadpans.
Robyn is reluctant to share smoothly deflecting questions about her past and how she earns a living, only offering up that she is vegan lesbian, recently quit smoking and is practicing sobriety. Her actions, however, tell a different story: Once Sharon leaves the house, Robyn gobbles up Sharon’s cheese in the refrigerator, lights up a cigarette and wistfully considers a bottle of liquor on the kitchen table.
One day Sharon, seeking to borrow a hat from one of Robyn’s myriad unpacked boxes, comes across a stash of driver’s licenses all with different names and addresses, and all featuring Robyn’s face. Confronted, Robyn admits to being on the lam and ticks off a lengthy list of cons in which she is adept.
“Are you the Nigerian!?!” Sharon asks incredulously.
Robyn offers assurances that her criminal days are over. Sharon cajoles Robyn into teaching her how to carry out a phone scam. What follows qualifies as a public service announcement as Robyn presents a step-by-step tutorial on how victims are selected, hooked into conversation and ultimately fleeced. Rather than being scandalized, Sharon is emboldened and wants to give it a try herself – “just once.” Fasten your seatbelt for a wild ride.
While the characters couldn’t be more different, actors Phillips and Strassburger’s performances are wonderfully in sync in delivering the comedy and compassion that drive this thoroughly engaging story by playwright Jen Silverman.
Set designer Christopher Scott Murrillo and prop designer Andrea Moriarty have created a cozy kitchen where all the story action takes place. A nod to the three-year pandemic delay in getting this production on stage – originally scheduled for a March 2020 opening – is found in a cluster of face masks hanging from a wall hook next to the aprons and juxtaposed with a white enamel stove, vintage Pyrex green mixing bowl, wall calendar of adorable animals and a background of flowered wallpaper.
Sound design by Marcus Rico and Samantha Ginn sets the mood between scenes with songs such as “Natural Woman” (Aretha Franklin), “Give Them Something to Talk About” (Bonnie Raitt) and two versions of “Bad Girls” (Donna Summers and M.I.A.). Costume design by Katrina Deroche, lighting design by Annelise Salazar and the intimacy director is Kandace Crystal.
Not only does “The Roommate” deliver a boatload of laughs, but the next time you receive an urgent call about your auto warranty expiring or that the Normandy Society for International Orphans badly needs funding you’ll know what do.
by Lynne Friedmann