There’s a play to be written about invisible women, i.e. femmes who hit 45 and insist on sticking around thereafter despite (as accurately chronicled in the program notes for Steppenwolf’s “The Roommate”) becoming unseen by everyone from bartenders to computer repair technicians. And there is also surely a story to be told about a roommate mismatch made in heaven — say, for example, a boho lesbian vegan slam poet/retired ceramicist with a thriving marijuana nursery who winds up bunking with a prim Iowa hausfrau who thinks weed is a mind-altering hallucinogen and takes pains to explain that her designer son is “not a homosexual.”
When: Through Aug. 5
Where: Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Tickets: $20 – $93;
Run time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Despite including many of the preceding elements, Jen Silverman’s “The Roommate” is not that play. Steppenwolf’s current mainstage outing — a two-hander swallowed up by the cavernous confines of the venue — makes “The Female Odd Couple” look positively enthralling (it’s not) by comparison.
Directed by Phylicia Rashad, the performances in Silverman’s 90-minute endeavor are fine. One would expect no less from ensemble members Sandra Marquez and Ora Jones, both of whom have been formidable leading ladies in Chicago for decades. But Silverman’s plot is an eye-roller, and not in a good way.
The plot rests on the unlikely-roommates trope. Buttoned-up Iowan Sharon (Marquez) takes in Robyn, a boarder from New York, in order to make ends meet. The reasons behind Robyn’s escape from the Bronx unfold in short order. It seems Robyn has a Past she is trying to escape, one that involves “a little bit of auto theft,” a lucrative career as a con artist and an estranged daughter. Predictably, Sharon is appalled but fascinated. It’s not long before (and you can see this coming a mile away, so it’s not really a spoiler) Sharon is pressing Robyn to teach her the ways of phone scams and petty theft.
Soon, Sharon is running cons on her friends, selling pot to the members of her reading group and purchasing automatic weapons at the local Wal-Mart. When Sharon suggests they enlist a local 12-year-old to start marketing marijuana to grade-schoolers, it’s a bridge too far. Silverman plays the scheme for laughs, but it’s not funny. It’s a plot stunt, which means it has everything to do with manufacturing some kind of dramatic tension, but little believable connection with the actual characters on stage.
Silverman has incorporated a lot of pseudo-wisdom into the story. Several times, we’re told that “there’s great liberty in being bad,” with the gravitas of one of those inspirational posters misguided supervisors hang in the break room. We’re to believe that petty (or larger) larceny provides Sharon with the fulfillment and pizazz that’s has been missing from her “cold, empty” life. That’s balderdash, both in terms of Sharon’s journey and as a life maxim.
Here’s what else doesn’t work. Robyn’s cons have supposedly made her rich. But when we see them in action, it’s impossible to believe that anyone would fall for them. Seriously: How long would you stay on the phone with a stranger who had a Pepe LePew accent claiming to need money for French orphans? And for the love of all things even remotely likely: How likely is it that a lonely 50something (who we have no reason to believe is a sociopath) would attempt to solve her problems by getting a child to push weed to other children? I’m calling shenanigans. And not in a good way.
Silverman attempts to use Sharon and Robyn’s troubled relationships with their (always offstage) children as some kind of basis for their embrace of criminality. The multiple phone calls with these invisible children quickly soon feel like a dramatic crutch. One-sided conversations are an ineffective substitute for actual character development.
When the final scene roles around, it’s unconvincing, unearned and unlikely. The same could be said of “The Roommate” as a whole. Silverman’s got a great idea. Heaven knows women of a certain age are not well-represented in pop culture. Oh well. We did get “Ocean’s 8” this summer. I suppose that’s something.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.